Joni Mitchell (born Roberta Joan Anderson; November 7, 1943) – Part Two
by Mark Allred
As promised this 2nd part of Joni Mitchell will delve a little deeper specifically in the individual Mitchell songs from the CDs in the Manieri Collection. Joni Mitchell wrote,
“And we’ll laugh and toast to nothing and smash
our glasses down
A round for these freaks and these soldiers
A round for these friends of mine…”
I say, remember another round for those able to accomplish some single achievement; complete just one important task; make some miniscule difference in our day to day lives. How can we properly applaud those that are successful on numerous levels at numerous tasks benefiting thousands of people? Fortunately the true geniuses of the world do not rely on or crave our acceptance of them or what they do. There are many shiny things to keep us “diving, diving, diving down to pick up on” in our entertainment industry but they are more often soon replaced with disappointment. The star maker machinery will always measure success with sales and it seems the less talented need the most promotion and attention.
Not to dismiss the one hit wonders of the world because someone may have given their all and that alone is commendable but how are some musicians able to pour out their essential soul album after album with significant creative material? Joni Mitchell gained respect from fellow musicians and sold millions of albums without really having a string of radio hits or dancing clad in sexy costumes in choreographed music videos. Could that happen again today? Doubtful.
Starting early in her recording career she mixed elements of jazz in what would ordinarily be labeled folk or pop music. By integrating jazz sidemen into the mix of musicians she achieved a certain control producing a unique style to her sound. Court and Spark became one of her more popular albums, not because it had a pure pop sound but because it received a certain amount of radio play with some of her songs actually charting at the time. FM Radio had just come out of the closet changing from classical music to an “anything goes type format” with California leading the way for “album rock”. DJs were still creating their own play list choices and playing albums in their entirety. Exposure was broad and reflected in sales and even influenced AM radio feeling an urge to join in. It was a small window for a short time that allowed many musicians an opportunity to become recognized just before the corporate mentality cinched the gap shut.
Recorded in ’73, released in ’74, Court and Spark marked a definite turning point for the music industry as well as for Joni Mitchell. Her lyrics not only dealt with love and love lost but began to reflect the hectic lifestyle she was at one time simply observing but now felt herself becoming more and more a part of. The album had an array of top notch musicians. The sound was full but not overproduced. Miles of Aisleswas also released about this time which documented her recent tour with jazz band, L.A. Express, who had all served as sidemen in the studio; Max Bennett – bass, John Guerin – drums and percussion, Larry Carlton – guitarist, and Joe Sample – keyboards, and of course Tom Scott on reeds and woodwinds. This stellar collaboration was actually kept to a more minimal sound and never seemed top heavy or cumbersome. Each musician’s contribution stood out and never became a blur in a blend of homogenized orchestration. This was probably because the line-up changed somewhat with each song. Robbie Robertson’s guitar solo was distinctive as was the commentary from Cheech and Chong. The muted trumpet of Chuck Findley fit between the vocals and bass as tight as a piece into a puzzle. The recommended song picks are Car on a Hill, Troubled Child /Twisted, and Free Man in Paris. Actually every song would be considered a pick. Each one still sounds fresh and pertinent today amongst the modernite wannabes and imitators.
The next year The Hissing of Summer Lawns was released which had almost the same line-up of musicians. There was a slight shift with more emphasis and greater dependency on solos by Chuck Findley, Victor Feldman, with special attention to the rhythm section of John Guerin and Max Bennett. The overall sound was very similar to Court and Spark but the vocals seemed to be ever stretching not just for the simply high notes but for notes and nuances to better depict the songs’ meaning. Listen to the mood set by the pitch on her voice in the song, Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow. If one song could be chosen to represent the music of that album it would be Harry’s House-Centerpiece. Perhaps the more innovative song on this collection is The Boho Dance. Once a literary reference, the Boho Dance has now been applied to all the arts or the arts in general. This song gives insight to Joni Mitchell’s attitude toward her music, music as art, and the music industry and her refusal to dance the Boho Dance. Effortlessly it segues to the next song. The most ambitious composition is The Jungle Line. Joni’s acoustic guitar and moog synthesizer weaves a pattern of sound intermittently overpowered by the African drums of Burundi. Her vocals and lyrics supply the thread that stitches the composition together so dramatically all “for a taste of something smuggled in”.
The following release, Hejira, sets the mood musically for Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, Mingus, and the live tour, Shadows and Light. Joni’s submersion into jazz-fusion seemed uncompromising, somewhat obstinate without regard to friends, fans, or critics. These were the years she consistently worked with musicians like Wayne Shorter and Jaco Pastorius. While these musicians were recognized, they certainly were not the legendary figures they are today. At that time Weather Report had filled the gap left by Miles Davis who was on a recording hiatus. They suffered much of the same criticism as Joni Mitchell, mostly from the old school jazz sector of critics and musicians that considered fusion to be a separate animal from jazz. Ironic how so many forgot that the founding members of Weather Report were the very musicians that had helped establish the classic sound of modern jazz; the very members of the “Olde Guard”.
The title song Hejira pits Jaco’s bass against Joni’s evolved guitar style, a worthy opponent, but instead of sparring they are running, jogging, pacing themselves neither too far ahead nor behind while her vocals take flight like a kite in a March wind. Jaco, at the time, was a relative new comer to the jazz recording scene compared to the others. He did not have the years of pedigree gained after a lifetime of playing with various bands but made up for any deficiency by using his innovation. He brought a different kind of experience to the table. Jaco was able to manipulate the electric bass comparable to other bass players, like Charles Mingus, but took it a step further in another direction. Jaco was not the first bass player to play in what became characteristically his style but he was the first to be able to squeeze out such agility using that style.
In Joni Mitchell’s 1979 Down Beat Magazine interview with famed jazz writer Leonard Feather, which appeared in the September 6th issue. They discussed Charles Mingus and the then recently finished recording of Joni’s “Mingus” album.
Leonard: Did Charles Mingus know anything about the choice of Jaco before you made it?
Joni: We talked about personnel and the people he suggested, I didn’t know any of them. I tried some sessions with people he suggested, but still, all the way along, in the back of my mind I had my favorites, and those are the people I ended up working with.
Leonard: Did you tell him about Jaco after you used him?
Joni: No, we talked about him at an earlier stage — you have to understand he was very ill then, so I couldn’t tell from his responses whether he knew Jaco’s work or whether he liked it. I couldn’t get any real feedback. All I knew was that he was very prejudiced against electrical instruments, but when he articulated his prejudices on a tape that I heard, Jaco transcends them all. He felt that with an electrical instrument you couldn’t get the dynamics; that the dynamics were all done by pushing buttons and so on. But Jaco completely defies all that; he gets more dynamics than any bass player… he’s phenomenal, he’s an orchestra. He’s a horn section, he’s a string section, he’s a French horn soloist…
Surprisingly, on the song Furry Sings the Blues, with Mitchell on guitar and Neil Young on harmonica, the phenomenal bass player that steals all the attention is not Jaco Pastorius but veteran band mate, Max Bennett, instead. The song Blue Motel Room features bassist Chuck Domanico. While it is Mitchell’s voice that is the most pivotal on this song, the bass is given ample room to stretch. It is obvious that the bass is now playing a much more important role than before. The rest of the album is undoubtedly Jaco on bass and he and Mitchell generated a musical rapport that would stay in tact for her subsequent albums through Mingus and the tour.
Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, the album after Hejira, extended the overall sound and feel but came with a few surprises; least of all was the photo of her on the front cover dressed in drag as a black man. (Was she thumbing her nose at the critics?) The Silky Veils of Ardor, for the first time in a long while, featured only Joni on acoustic guitar and vocals but could be considered most anything but folk. Clocked in at over 16 minutes Paprika Plains seemingly meanders like a dream sequence of unrelated events until Wayne Shorter’s sax breaks in and fittingly carries the listener right out of the entire song. The Tenth World is simply mass percussion with the designated percussionist on lead vocals. Joni and Chaka Khan contribute back-up vocals. The next song, Dreamland, continues where the thunderous percussion ends introducing a solitary heavy drum beat above the more sparse percussion together with Joni and Chaka on lead and accent vocals. Joni takes the first line singing, “It’s a long long way from Canada”. Indeed it is. These songs tend to make her other compositions sound more normal or at least familiar. Like Hejira, this album has a very full complex sound sometimes achieved using only 2-3 musicians. Her songs commonly address the traditional themes of loneliness and relationships as well as current news events with such lyrics as “While Muslims stick up Washington…”, that all still seem timely today.
Mingus, her third and last studio recording with the ill-fated Jaco Pastorius found Joni plunging deeper with reckless abandon into a more formal jazz structure in her song writing. There must have been critics that thought this album would be the proverbial water to hold her head under long enough to determine if she would drown or float and be proven a witch. Most of the songs were co-written by jazz great Charles Mingus. He was obviously able to recognize her commitment and talent and wanted to work with her during the end of his life. He died before the recording was finished but did get to hear most the songs. It is doubtful the final result would have been shocking to him. Mitchell was amazingly capable of writing biographical lyrics to the jazz standard Goodbye Pork Pie Hat. Surprisingly, especially to her, Joni was writing personal lyrics regarding another life other than her own. She sought the approval from Charles Mingus while sustaining a common or universal relevance in her songs. Her lyrics became different, more free, from her other work. More than her vantage point had changed. Her alliance with Mingus gave her no more credibility as far as the record company was concerned. In what album bin can you put a one time folk singer turned rock & roll jazz musician that sings her own compositions and NO STANDARDS on top of it all? It was the great big legged Emma dilemma.
“Watching the drycleaner do it
Like Midas in a polyester suit
It’s all luck
It’s just luck
You get a little lucky and you make a little money…”
The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines is one of the few upbeat sparkles cast amongst otherwise solemn or somewhat depressing songs. With Wayne Shorter, Jaco Pastorius, Don Alias, and Peter Erskine having played together in Weather Report, the band entered the studio with an experienced sound effortlessly encompassing the guitar of Joni Mitchell and the electric piano played by Herbie Hancock. When listening to The Chair in the Sky you begin to realize the voice is the only recognized melody while the other musicians seem to improvise their own input. Toward the second half of the song the bass and sax repeat a certain familiar riff while Herbie vaguely echoes the vocals until the vocal itself floats from the melody with all the instruments coming back at the end. It is as though everyone was drifting off to dreamland in their own mind with their own thoughts but was brought back to think a single thought all at once.
The cheerful high pitched soprano saxophone chirping in Sweet Sucker Dance is a welcomed contrast to the heavy harmonic bass. The languid delivery of the lyrics, which eventually turn into a compact sort of time released scat singing, lethargically reminds us that life and love is only a dance, metaphorically. “Am I a Sucker to love you?” The song ends in an arguably optimistic sense by not answering the question. The bass and sax seem to quarrel, the bass making the final point in the debate. After Mingus, Joni did not record for several years and when she did, it was a much lighter affair. It was as though her deep submersion into jazz had left her feeling drained or perhaps she felt that it would be futile to try and top her last effort. Things were different. She re-married. Jaco Pastorius was killed; the band changed, the record label changed, and once again her music changed.
Bibliography and resources:
Down Beat Magazine; Joni Mitchell interview by Leonard Feather, September 6th 1979