My concert companion bailed on me. Okay, so there was a blizzard raging -- a freakish thing to happen the night before Halloween -- and there wasn't a taxi to be had; even the local subway was out of commission. And true, we had already seen Marshall Crenshaw not so very long ago, down at the City Winery. But Marshall's October gigs at the Iridium jazz club were going to be something entirely different: A tribute to masters of the Les Paul guitar, with all sorts of special guests and the Les Paul Trio backing up Marshall. How could I miss that?
So I slogged down there alone, wet boots and all, and, man, was it worth it. Marshall more or less conducted a seminar in vintage rock and pop, featuring renditions of classics from everyone from Freddie King and Bill Haley to Smokey Robinson and the Three Suns (favorites of Mamie Eisenhower, apparently.). Along with Marshall appeared guitarist Steuart Smith of the Eagles, the fabulous Charlie Giordano of E Street fame -- who convinced me that every song should have accordion on it -- and, filling in as the voice of Sylvia Robinson on two Mickey & Sylvia covers, the effervescently charming Nikki Jean.
Some sixth sense told me that Marshall was going to include Mickey & Sylvia numbers. Maybe it's because he'd already introduced me to one of the songs -- the ridiculously delightful "Love Will Make You Fail In School" -- on his Saturday WFUV radio show. But I'd never heard of Nikki Jean, the singer Marshall had enlisted to help him out. Her shimmering, pure voice was perfect for the job, though, and when Marshall encouraged her to perform a couple of songs from her new album Pennies in a Jar, I became hooked.
Now here's the cool back story. Pennies in a Jar is Nikki Jean's debut album (although she cut her teeth on indie/hip-hop projects such as Nouveau Riche and tours with Lupe Fiasco and Kanye West). Normally those credentials would send me running in the opposite direction, but Marshall's intro helped me discover that Nikki's got a whole nother thang going on. Born Nicholle Jean Leary in St. Paul, Minnesota -- a Midwestern girl after my own heart! -- she's now based in that old-school music capital of Philly (check out her appearance with fellow Phillyite Daryl Hall on Live From Daryl's House). She's known among her friends and fans for baking cookies and knitting as well as singing -- how retro is that! All of which makes perfect sense to me, now that I've listened to her new CD, Pennies in a Jar.
For Pennies in a Jar is Nikki Jean's bid to link up to the great American pop-soul singer-songwriter heritage, a feat she accomplished with odds-defying nerve. She simply contacted all the great American pop songwriters -- Burt Bacharach, Carole King, Jimmy Webb, Carly Simon, Jeff Barry, Paul Williams, even Bob Dylan -- and asked them to co-write songs with her. And believe it or not, they all said yes.
The result is a pretty wonderful album with great range. Nikki's supple, lovely voice and innate musicality suit this classic tradition, so much so that I have to wonder what she was ever doing messing around in the hip-hop world. (To my ears the weakest track on the album is "Million Star Motel", which features hip-hoop emcees Lupe Fiasco and Black Thought).
And this track -- which she sang that night at the Iridium -- has emerged as my favorite on the album. This one she co-wrote with Philly Soul great Thom Bell, author of such classics as "Didn't I Blow Your Mind (This Time)," "Betcha By Golly Wow," and "Could It Be I'm Falling in Love." Bell's DNA is all over this track, and it officially blows my mind.
That central image -- how to unring a bell -- it's like a Zen koan, isn't it? All of the images she unspools, from falling snow to spilled milk, from shot bullets to a dropped bomb, are irretrievable acts. So, too, is the fatal moment in a relationship when you break things off; you may be able to backpedal and patch it up, but the fact that you ever inititated a break-up is on the record forever. "Once you choose / The hand you play is yours to lose" -- it's sad but true, and you can never unsay those words again.
Dig the descending melodic line of the verse, the unresolved keys, that sense of brooding they convey. In the bridge and the chorus, it expands into major key, as she philosophically regards the situation she's created -- but the die is cast, and the brooding verses will take over again. We have no idea whether she wants to save the relationship after all, only that she's seized with regret by the sense of having crossed a line. It's psychologically acute, with a hook that I can't get out of my head.
So kudos to Nikki Jean, for apprenticing herself to the masters of songwriting, and for allying herself with a longer-term tradition. When I bought this CD from her in the Iridium bar, she couldn't have been sweeter or more genuine: all she could do was gush about the generous spirit of the songwriters she'd worked with, and her awe at being on stage that night with such amazing musicians. (Those old guys?)
Somewhere in here, the planets are aligning. And it's all good.