Sunday, December 09, 2007

Joni Mitchell

How do you begin describe Joni Mitchell's 40 year career in popular music, especially when that path has taken her from busking for pocket change in her native Canada in the mid-1960s to the heights of commercial success in the American recording industry in the early 1970s, only to turn her back on a business she believed was exploitative and insincere, to then accept invitations from jazz innovators such as Charlie Mingus, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny and Jaco Pastorious to play as side musicians on her albums, and then, finally, to have such great modern guitarists as John Scofield, Bill Frisell and John Abercrombie look to her own guitar playing as an inspiration in their own work?

Court and Spark is probably the recording that introduced most listeners to Mitchell's work, as it includes two of her most popular singles, "Help Me [I Think I'm Falling]," and "Free Man in Paris." The same people who discovered Mitchell with those songs probably had no idea she wrote one of Crosby, Stills and Nash's most popular songs, "Woodstock." Listen to these songs carefully, though, and you will hear a very different inflection and voicing than her contemporaries at the time, most notably Carole King (a great singer and songwriter in her own right) and Roberta Flack. Mitchell's vocal style, much like her guitar playing, owed much more to jazz than popular music. Polio at an early age left Mitchell with limited mobility in her left hand, and that left her unable to voice many standard chords on the fretboard. Her original, unorthodox style attracted the attention of the great jazz musicians I noted above, and she began to collaborate with them on several ambitious recordings in the late 1970s, with Mingus and Shadows and Light the most interesting -- albeit uneven -- of the bunch. For me, hearing an artist take chances with something new and interesting rather than play the same way over and over again is much more gratifying, even if the results are less than spectacular.

Mitchell continued to inspire other artists in the 1980s and 1990s. You can almost draw a straight line from Mitchell to Patricia Barber, a pianist/singer/composer more firmly rooted in the jazz tradition, a musician, like Mitchell, who falls into the "too cool to be real" genre of modern artists. But how do you account for Madonna drawing her inspiration from Mitchell?

Herbie Hancock seems especially taken with Mitchell's work. He featured her prominently on his 1998 tribute to George Gershwin, Gershwin's World, where she offers beautiful renditions of "Summertime" and "My Man's Gone Now." His most recent record, The Joni Letters, is a tribute to her compositional gifts. Reacquaint yourself with this great artist if it's been a while. If you've never spent any time with her, do so. You'll be amply rewarded.


Jeremy said...

Don't forget her amazing rendition of "Goodbye Blue Sky" as part of The Wall in Berlin.

Apollo said...

I'm a fan, but I could not finish her new album Shine.