First impressions are bullshit, and Jennifer Lee is my proof.
There she is on the cover of her debut album, J-Walkin'-apparently GAP-dressed, sandy blonde hair layered in a sassy soccer-mom cut, big hoop earrings-walking across Fourth Avenue in downtown San Diego.
She's smiling, it's sunny. Behind her, the Gaslamp District marquee arches over an oncoming Pontiac with its safety lights on.
The album's title seems like a cheesy play on her name-like scary people named "Erin" obsessed with the letter "E."
At a glance, nothing about the San Francisco singer's debut album says "mysterious" or "exotic" or even "jazz."
Billie Holiday had a real intimate, spooning-Lucifer familiarity with the underworld, evidenced by her problems with drugs and men. Her music was extreme grace amid extreme turmoil-like a stained- glass Van Gogh at the gates of hell.
In comparison, Jennifer Lee looks like she's late for a great sale at a mediocre boutique. Her grace looks inherited, bestowed.
It's a small-minded impression. And Lee laughs politely when I tell her it's the reason I initially ignored J-Walkin'.
"My brother took that photo," she says.
I'm an asshole. An asshole who's just offended a family member's artistic talents. And they live here in San Diego-her mother and her brother the photographer.
But I have phoned Lee at her home in San Francisco for a reason, which is: this small-minded asshole actually listened to J-Walkin'. And it's good, soulful, elegant vocal jazz, the sort that needn't be packaged with non-fat no-whip mochaccinos in order to sell.
Lee has a college degree in fine arts that she doesn't use. She's worked at a Bay Area newspaper doing sales. She's played too many hotel bars in the pop-jazz age that Norah Jones birthed.
"I get a lot of people coming up to me asking me to sing her songs. All the time," she says. "It was Diana Krall for a while. Now it's Norah."
Lee has songs of her own-two of which made the cut on J-Walkin', between sensual interpretations of standards like "Blue Skies" and "Baltimore Oriole." One is "Note to My Niece," a ballad that will make a budding relative-Darby-really happy one day. Rich Kuhns' accordion carries the whispy melody, as Peter Sprague's guitar punctuates with plucky acoustic lines.
The second is "Cathy's Song," a piano instrumental Lee wrote for a friend who was lying in a San Francisco hospital with tubes sticking out of her body, a machine keeping her alive.
"I had this steady gig in the city and she was at UCSF hospital," Lee recalls. "My gig went until one in the morning every weekend, and I was going after that and hanging out with her until 4 o'clock in the morning.
"I don't know if you've ever seen anyone on a ventilator, but it was really scary. This is someone who is pretty close to the edge. I wrote that song and recorded it. And her husband played it for her-he had music he was playing for her by putting earphones on her head."
As of the latest check, Lee's friend is totally free of pancreatic cancer. And her song serves as a tender, inspirational outro to an album that seemed as ill fated as Cathy's own future once did.
During the recording process at Peter Sprague's studio in Encinitas last year, Lee's vocal problems came to a climax. She'd had failures all her life, but the frailty she heard on the first tracks just wasn't acceptable.
"It became abundantly clear to me when I heard myself recorded that I couldn't just get away with it," Lee says. "It just wasn't working well enough for me to be satisfied with the recording."
So Lee took a few months off, toured hospitals and discovered two problems-allergies that located themselves, sadistically, in her larynx, and acid reflux. So she doped up on allergy pills, and she no longer eats certain foods, at certain times, in certain ways. Roberto's is totally out.
She eventually finished the album and, as we've already covered, it's damn good.
Regardless, Lee's accustomed to a bit of struggle. Struggle has even led to opportunity. Lee met Sprague, for instance, because she's an artist that "barely breaks even on the road-even when I fill the room." Unable to hire a touring band, she asked around, and Sprague's name repeatedly came up as a gifted accomplice who could help her at a show at San Diego jazz dive, Dizzy's.
"Jennifer likes to play songs slow, and she courageously embraces the empty space that occurs when you have only a few instruments," Sprague says. "She lives in this world and she fills it up with a gorgeous sound. How could any old guitar slinger resist teaming up with her?"
Lee, in return, crows about Sprague's contribution. "Peter's just a really incredibly creative guy," she says. "So the arrangements are more sophisticated than when I first brought them to him."
As you read this, Sprague and Lee are getting together for their usual one-day practice before her gig. She sent him the charts for the show a week ago; the rehearsal is just to reconnect and fine-tune.
She's there in her GAP attire, with her sandy-blonde hair, her persnickety, allergin-susceptible vocal chords and a box of unexotic, unmysterious, unjazz-looking CDs to sell.
And that should be good enough.Jennifer Lee plays with Peter Sprague (guitar) and Bob Magnusson (bass) at Dizzy's, 8 p.m. on May 20. $10. 858-270-7467.