Those walking bass lines, swinging rhythms and hipster vocalizing. No wonder Time magazine dubbed Rickie Lee Jones "The Duchess of Coolsville."
One of pop music's true originals, Jones has always been jazz-adjacent.
Her 1979 eponymous debut had shades of bohemian jazz. In 1991, on her "Pop Pop" covers album, she offered a couple of jazz standards like "I'll Be Seeing You." And she's since dropped other classics like "My Funny Valentine" into her recorded and concert repertoire.
This spring, Jones delivered her first collection of standards, the remarkably intimate, late-night "Pieces of Treasure," featuring mostly songs she learned as a kid from her father. For the project, she reunited with producer Russ Titelman, who helmed her debut, which led to her winning a Grammy for best new artist, and her splendid sophomore effort, "Pirates."
Before Jones, 68, returns to the Dakota this week for a program of standards, she Zoomed in from her New Orleans house.
Q: Two years ago when we talked about your terrific memoir "Last Chance Texaco," you said you were ready to record an album of original material. What happened?
A: I went to talk to Russ Titelman about doing it and he said, "No, let's make a jazz record." Those songs are there and they're waiting. When we're done working on this, I'll make a decision to make a piece of theater or I'll put out a record. It really depends on other people's interests because they bring the money for me to do the bigger things.
Q: What was it like working with Titelman again?
A: It was loving and kind and life-changing. It settled that long distance that had been between us for so many years and brought it to the now. And inexplicably we made another great piece of art together, which would seem unlikely that it would happen a second time. But it did. I feel like I'm a happier person now than when I began [the new album]. And I was happy when I began it.
Q: Russ said of you in a press release: "Her voice has always sounded a bit younger than it ought to. But on this recording the aging voice sounds even better to me than the younger one. There's a resonance and warmth in her lower register that wasn't there before." How do you react to that?
A: I think he believes that. He quite loved my younger voice, as well. There is a resonance and, in my estimation, there's an intimacy and confidence that comes with age. In a way, it can be a greater quality than the absolute control and sparkly stuff of youth.
Everything that we are comes through our voice as we sing. Sometimes our best selves show up when we're older, but our voice starts to age and quaver and you can't get out how much joy and love you have to give the world. But right now I'm still able to sing very well. And the spirit is coming through. I think that's what he's talking about.
Q: Talk about your relationship with jazz.
A: Coming in the door [at Warner Bros. Records] in 1979, it was a folk-rock highway, then it diverted into country-rock, they called it. As I was preparing to be signed and make my record, I knew what I wanted to present to people musically and as far as image. I did recognize that I was the guy out there interested in singing old jazz ballads. I felt that was something that made me unique. Bette Midler was doing a little bit of jazz but she was weaving it in this very campy and nostalgic thing of dressing up and doing an act. So when "Chuck E.'s in Love" hit it big, I felt I had a chance to integrate real jazz into my music and introduce it to the kids that came to the shows. Whatever my relationship with jazz, whether or not the jazz police acknowledged it, I've been part of helping to bring that music to people who otherwise wouldn't have listened to it. And that's a good thing, I think.
Q: What can we expect in concert at the Dakota?
A: I'll be bringing a jazz band. You'll get the new album and things I feel they can play well. We'll do a couple of the oldies, but this is a chance for me to not have to do that for a few months. I'm going to concentrate on not singing anything that I'm obliged to sing. Only what I feel like singing.
Q: What is it like to sing "Chuck E.'s in Love" these days?
A: I don't do it very often. It's a very hard song to pull off. People like it best when it sounds just like the record. No matter how you do it, it doesn't sound like the record. Even though I know they want to hear it, I know what's best for them. I don't play it unless I have background vocalists and three guitars and everybody who can make that song sound as good as it can. Because I do it with a little band and the guys can sing but it just sounds ragtag-y. I think it's not satisfying to people.
Q: How has living in New Orleans impacted your music?
A: It's coming much more freely now. There's music everywhere all the time. It's just as natural for people to be playing a trombone or a drum here as it is for people in Minnesota to go ice fishing. It all adds up to me being at ease with who I am and the fact that I can enjoy writing songs and I write them for a living. I don't have to do anything else but have fun all day long. I shouldn't make it so hard.
Q: You lived in Chicago for the first few years of your life. What's the most Midwestern thing about you?
A: My "R's." I have questionable R's. Sometimes I have a hard R. I played with it a lot because I didn't like the R I had when I was younger. A Chicago R.
Q: Which was the inspiration for Prince's song "Raspberry Beret" — the cover of your debut album or the cover of Joni Mitchell's "Hejira"?
A: I'm pretty sure I was the raspberry beret of those years.
Rickie Lee Jones
When: 6:30 & 8:30 p.m. Wed. & Thu.
Where: The Dakota, 1010 Nicollet Mall, Mpls.
Tickets: $50-$65, dakotacooks.com.