All About Improvisation: Rickie Lee Jones Prefers To Create Music On The Spot

By L. Kent Wolgamott

If Rickie Lee Jones had her way, she’d never sing a song that had been written before she and her musical collaborators walk out on stage.

“To be honest, my best songs are probably improvised on the spot,” she says. “While I can do that, taking the other kids along is a challenge. If I stand up there and make up a song, when I’m done it will be a whole song, not a series of images. It’s a big deal to make up lyrics and a melody in front of people. It’s a risk emotionally. You’re not going to get stoned or shot. But you can fail.”

For that kind of performance to occur, Jones says she’d have to find the right people to play with and properly bill the performances and be able still make some money from the shows — and that likely can’t ever happen.

“My goal in life is to have an ensemble of people so intimate we can go out and improvise music,” she says. I’m not talking about jazz guys improvising over the same old chords, but new songs, new music. I know I can do it.

“I enjoy the feeling of it as a dream,” Jones says. “It’s another thing with the business. You’d have to market it as ‘you won’t hear any of those songs.’ When I’ve attempted to do that in the past, it’s been difficult and I’ve lost money. I don’t have the money to lose now.”

Maybe, Jones says, she should try out the make-up songs concept in a residency at a club somewhere in New Orleans, where she’s lived for the last few years.

For now, on tour, Jones will comb through her catalog for material. But it almost certainly won’t sound exactly like the record when it’s performed.

“It’s probably because I’m super creative and I don’t say that as a compliment,” Jones says of her need to change the songs. “My mind won’t stop making up new ways to do things. If I’m with super creative people, that can be great. If they’re not so creative, it can be difficult. I can’t stop making something new out of things, except maybe ‘The Last Chance Texaco.’ I think I do that the same way.”

“The Last Chance Texaco” comes from Rickie Lee Jones, her 1979 debut album. But the imagery comes from Arizona, one of the places Jones lived while growing up. Moving to Los Angeles, Jones fell in with hipsters (which meant something far different in the ’70s) Chuck E. Weiss and Tom Waits, with whom she was later romantically involved.

Powered by the jazz-inflected single “Chuck E’s in Love,” based on her friend’s rumored romance, Rickie Lee Jones became a smash album, hitting number three on the Billboard albums charts, selling a million copies.

Nominated for four Grammys, Jones took the Best New Artist Award in 1980 — a time when punk/new wave was at its peak. But with her experimental mix of pop, jazz and rock, she didn’t fit with the punkers any more than she did the mainstream.

“I’ve been a little too wild for the middle of the road and I’m a little too conservative for the punk-rock edge,” she said. “I feel like I’m an odd bird.”

Dubbed the “Duchess of Coolsville,” Jones had another top five album with 1981’s Pirates and has continued to regularly release albums and EPs over what is now nearly 40 years. She won another Grammy for best jazz vocal for her 1990 version of “Makin’ Whoopee” and crafted a masterpiece with 1997’s Ghostyhead.

In 2015, Jones released her 16th recording The Other Side of Desire, a New Orleans-filled album, on her own label. Unlike many artists who emphasize their most recent work in concert, Jones says she’ll likely only do one song from the record at her shows.

“That was a good record, but it takes me a long time to become a fan of my records. That record hasn’t fallen in yet,” she said. “What’s exciting to me is the ensemble I work with, the directions they go with the music.”

Regardless of the directions they will go, the music will retain the intimacy that has connected Jones with her listeners since Rickie Lee Jones.

“I don’t think I do that on purpose,” she said. I think I’m intimate. I draw you in as a human being. That’s the way I am with my improvisations. When I make things up, it’s very real to me. It’s a work of emotion. Those buildings over there are made of sorrow, like that. When you traverse that emotional landscape, it’s a complex experience.”

Finding the emotion is one of the reasons that Jones continues to rework her songs, giving them new life for her as well as the audience each time she hits the stage.

“The first time I played it, the song was now alive,” she said. “I need to experience it that way. It has to be in front of me, a song I discover. As the decades go by, the challenge is to keep discovering them. The songs are like a house. The living room is there, the bedroom is there. They’re always in the same place…. When I sing, all of my emotions are engaged. That’s kind of cool.”