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Tameca Jones — Austin's 'Tina Turner of jazz' — wows with her range

Michael Corcoran
Singer and single mother of twins Tameca Jones performs at Continental Club Gallery on Thurs., Aug. 17, 2012.

Tameca Jones is not a good interview if you’re trying to get facts about her career, her philosophies on the music business or where she sees herself in five years. If you want to know what year the singer joined 8 Million Stories or when she briefly moved to San Francisco after the neo-soul band broke up, her math begins with how old her twins, now 11, were at the time, followed by subtraction that’s more complicated than it should be.

But if you’re trying to find out what kind of person Tameca is offstage, you’ll get that in about five minutes. She loves to laugh, at herself as well as other things. She’s confidently vulnerable, with a strange mix of trust and paranoia. Her friends call her “Superwoman,” with half considering it ironic. She’s all over the place, this one; a parent and a child, a fan and a soul high priestess. Like her mash-up of Led Zeppelin, her all-time favorite band, with Gershwin’s “Summertime,” baby got range.

Her devoted fans climb the stairs of the Continental Club Gallery every Thursday night because they know they’re going to get not only “the Tina Turner of Jazz,” as Jones is dubbed for her high-energy shows and short skirts, but they’re going to get a piece of her personality. And maybe a cupcake, which Jones has been known to bake on special occasions, like tonight’s birthday show with fellow Sept. 30 delivery Wendy Colonna.

Not everyone likes Tameca at first. I didn’t, mistaking her bluntness for arrogance. But after you meet Queen Meek, it’s impossible not to have a crush on her — male or female, straight or gay, old or young. “She may come off a little strong, but underneath that she’s so sweet and completely hysterical,” Colonna says.

In some ways, her brashness — she once sent an email to critics suggesting they dig deeper than local jazz sensation Kat Edmonson if they wanted to know what they were talking about — masks her insecurity. “I wonder if I made the right decision pursuing this full-time music thing,” says Jones, of the trademark Afro hairstyle. Being an African American female singer in Austin not named Ruthie Foster can be a hard road.

“I don’t feel like I really fit into the Austin music scene,” says Jones, whose band is racially mixed. “The audiences are almost all white and I think, in a way, it’s easier for a white soul band to be recognized here than a black soul band. It’s just the culture, I guess.”

Diagnosed with narcolepsy when she fell asleep at the wheel while a senior at Bowie High and drove her car into a ditch, Jones takes medication twice daily, which keeps her awake and perhaps contributes to her hyper personality. The 33-year-old lives in New Braunfels with her parents, who help her with the twins; Jones became pregnant in her senior year at Baylor University. She never graduated.

Always singing in school talent shows and in karaoke contests, Jones kept hearing that she should join a band. About five or six years ago (the twins, a boy and a girl, were 5 or 6), Jones found a band on Craigslist that liked the kind of music she liked — Alicia Keys, P-Funk, Stevie Wonder, Sly, Fugees, Marvin Gaye — and so she auditioned and became a member of 8 Million Stories.

After one gig at Lucky Lounge, a visiting couple from San Francisco approached Jones, told her she had rare talent and made her an offer: Come to the Bay Area as a solo artist and they’d pay all her expenses and become her managers. “They weren’t in the music business, but they had money and they wanted to help,” Jones says. Born and raised in Austin, the singer was looking for a new adventure in a new town and so she and the twins relocated in 2007. The new situation also would give her more time to work on her songwriting. Jones wrote most of the words and melodies on the 8 Million Stories LP but needed help from the musicians to flesh out the songs.

“I have all the ingredients,” she says of her raw songwriting gift, “but I need help from someone to turn it into a meal.” Without a collaborator, she concentrated on interpreting the songs of others. The Bay Area had a number of jazz clubs, and with her survival instinct kicking in, Jones learned a set’s worth of standards.

But the move didn’t turn out so well, as the couple and the Jones family were evicted from their spacious rental house when the owner defaulted on his loan and the house went into foreclosure.

Back in Austin in 2008 with a jazz repertoire, Jones found a fan in Elephant Room booker Mike Mordecai, and before long she had a line out the door of the famous jazz basement on Congress Avenue. “I tried to set her up as a chanteuse, with a pianist or something simple,” Mordecai says, “but Tameca wanted to lead a band.” Mordecai says that over time, he realized her heart was really more into soul than jazz.

“Tameca’s technically such a great singer,” says Mordecai. “She’s got a clear, powerful voice and perfect pitch, but she had that R&B singer attitude: ‘Let me see what I can do with this song.’ A more natural jazz singer, like Kat, will look at the material as ask ‘What can this song do to me?’”

Tameca agrees, knowing her true bent was more Etta, less Ella. “Jazz was paying the bills, and I do love to sing those songs, but what I really wanted to sing was soul music and rock ’n’ roll,” she says. On a recent Thursday at the Gallery, Jones opened with the standard “Blues in the Night (My Mama Done Told Me),” her gymnastic voice vaulting all over the melody and bringing screams of appreciation from the fans. But then she funked it up with a bass-and-drum-heavy version of “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” by the Buckinghams that was almost unrecognizable from the original. As always, her take on Gary Jules’ “Mad Love” brought a standing ovation.

But even with her substantial talent, Jones always seems to be the runner-up. While Edmonson released a critically acclaimed album and toured with Lyle Lovett, Jones was still at the Elephant Room, with no record on the horizon. When she and her best friend, Suzanna Choffel, flew to L.A. together to audition for “The Voice,” Choffel made the cut and Jones didn’t. Even when she brought down the house with En Vogue’s “Something He Can Feel” at a karaoke contest in 2005, Tameca came in second place. It’s easy to become discouraged, and Jones admits to sometimes “feeling like I’m fighting a losing battle.”

But she owns Thursday night. Her weekly soul workouts at the Gallery have become one of the hottest residencies in town. (She also plays a trio set at Z’Tejas every other Tuesday.)

“It’s such a long drive from New Braunfels and after I’ve been taking care of the twins all day, I’m usually dog tired,” she says. “But then I go up those steps and my band’s there and I know I’m gonna be in heaven the next couple hours. It’s a spiritual thing, man. No matter what happens during the rest of the week, I know I’m going to be fulfilled on Thursday night.”

Many of her predominantly female fans, rooting on their fragile Superwoman, no doubt feel the same way.

Tameca Jones