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Rickie Lee Jones may sing about Iowa in Englert Theatre concert
Singer/songwriter touring with new American Songbook collection
Rickie Lee Jones has 17 albums worth of material to choose from when putting together a set list. But hopefully the iconic singer/songwriter plays a catchy snippet of an unrecorded demo she wrote in 1977, when she performs Sunday, May 21, 2023, at the Englert Theatre in Iowa City.
During a Zoom chat, Jones surprised by singing the refrain from a tune inspired by a state that remains a mystery to her — Iowa — in her familiar soprano.
“She is a silly girl/She wants to go to Iowa/I tried to tell her she should listen to me/There’s no one she should want to go to Iowa to see.”
If you go
What: Rickie Lee Jones
Where: Englert Theatre, 221 E. Washington St., Iowa City
When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday, May 21, 2023
Tickets: $44.50 or $20 students, englert.org/events/
Artist’s website: rickieleejones.com/
Jones, 68, laughed after singing the song.
“It’s kind of Paul Simon-y isn’t it," Jones said while calling from her New Orleans home. ”That’s an example of my early work before I was a professional songwriter. That’s what I wrote before ‘Chuck E’s in Love.’ “
The two-time Grammy winner staggered the music world with the quirky and infectious hit single “Chuck E’s in Love,” and the rest of the songs from her eponymous debut, which dropped in 1979.
The wildly stylistically diverse album with jazz, blues and rock elements, is filled with vibrant characters from the streets of Los Angeles. Jones impressed with songs that are poignant, wistful and ironic, and connected with music fans thanks to songs that are reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits.
“Pirates,” Jones’ exquisite 1981 follow-up, upped the ante, since the Chicago native nailed it with vivid imagery of the down and out. The material is among her finest and the tempo changes and her unusual phrasing are inspired.
The common denominator between Jones’ celebrated debut release and “Pirates” is producer Russ Titelman.
Jones and Titelman took a 41-year hiatus before reconnecting in 2022 to work on “Pieces of Treasure,” an album of classics from the Great American Songbook, released April 28.
“It was very cool working again with Russ,” Jones said. “It was life-changing for me (when Titelman produced her first two albums). It was life-affirming, finding such power.”
The pair surprisingly disconnected after the “Pirates” sessions ended.
“We hardly spoke,” Jones said. “He would come see me play every few years but we didn’t have lunch or dinner. I didn’t know if he disliked me. I saw something on the Internet that was questionable. He seemed to be mad at me, but I called him and we moved forward — and I’m glad we did.”
Titelman handpicked musicians — pianist Rob Mounsey, guitarist Russell Malone, bassist David Wong and drummer Mark McLean — who perfectly complement Jones’ supple voice.
Jones and the band knock it out of the park covering such classics as George and Ira Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” and Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s “One for My Baby.”
When asked what Titelman brought to the project, Jones paused.
“What he brings is love,” she said. “That’s the game changer. I think I could talk about his ear or expertise, but the most important thing is love. He’s aiming for not just beautiful music but a beautiful outcome. We had a great time.
“I didn’t want this to fail. It was not how the story was going to end. I knew this was the right way to go, being friends and making another record. It was just what we were supposed to do. This was about love and friendship.”
Those aren't hollow words from Jones, who has to feel that connection with a past collaborator in order to work with them again. Jones, who is refreshingly blunt and honest, mentioned her former co-conspirator, Sal Bernardi, who co-wrote the terrific “Traces of the Western Slopes,” one of the finest tracks from “Pirates.”
She explained why she’ll never work with the multi-instrumentalist again.
“I played with Sal Bernardi off and on for many years, but I can’t stand to be on the stage with him,” she said. “I get so aggravated and angry around him.”
Jones and Bernardi’s relationship is akin to a former married couple. Sometimes the dynamic changes and the pair must move on.
Jones isn’t hooking up with some of the musicians from her salad days, but the candid songsmith has no problem looking back at the start of her storied career.
“On my first tour, I rocked out and played jazz, and I played the acoustic guitar and played different kinds of music,” she said. “I was good at everything.”
Jones still has the touch. Her voice is even more rich with age. But there was something about her during those early, halcyon days. The stunning “Pieces of Treasure” cover photo with Jones in a tube top with cash placed on her chest was never published.
“I found that photo in a drawer,” she said of the photo gracing the cover of her latest album and T-shirts. “It’s so iconic. It captures the essence of Rickie Lee Jones.”
Coming to Iowa
The same can be said for her unrecorded Iowa song. If she does deliver the song when she performs at the Englert, it’ll be strictly from memory.
“The song is in my noodle,” she said. “I don’t know if there is a demo of it. I’m not sure if I remember the verses of the song.”
Even though she has played the Englert several times, her memories of Iowa are fuzzy.
“As far as I know, my few Iowa experiences have been in movies,” she said. “When I think Iowa, I think ‘Field of Dreams.’ But I do remember driving through Iowa when I was moving (to New Orleans), and it was really cold.
“It’s about time I play Iowa.”