In 1979, Joni Mitchell assembled perhaps the greatest unit of jazz players to tour with a pop artist (Sting’s “Dream of the Blue Turtles” ensemble notwithstanding) in support of her “Mingus” album, a recording that many cite as the apex of Joni’s jazz period, and also the album that left many of her original adherents from her folky “Blue” days behind.
That line-up included guitarist Pat Metheny, dearly departed saxman Michael Brecker and the late, great bassist Jaco Pastorius, whose contributions to Mitchell’s high-watermark effort, “Hejira” cannot be underestimated. Anybody who missed that tour were given a second chance to capture the spirit of Mitchell’s most adventurous, and jazz-inflected work with “Joni’s Jazz” last night at the Hollywood Bowl.
The cast for this once-in-a-lifetime event was not as road-tested as Joni’s 1979 ensemble, but players like Herbie Hancock, who curated the evening as the L.A. Philharmonic’s Creative Chair for Jazz, reed player Wayne Shorter and longtime Mitchell collaborator Tom Scott on tenor are nothing to sneeze at. The results were as transfixing and magical as one could have hoped for, even if the audience wasn’t treated to Joni’s own artfully unorthodox guitar tunings, or her voice (there was no sign of Joni on the premises).
Two things about the evening stood out in dramatic relief: the difficulty of many of Joni’s songs — with their often bendy trajectories and minor-chord progressions; and the unassailable beauty and clarity of Joni’s lyrics, with their keen sense of metaphor and rich storytelling capability.
Cassandra Wilson, whose husky voice is similar to what’s Joni’s once-souring falsetto voice sounds like these days, did a wonderful job of revealing the vulnerability and heartache of “Help Me” from the LP “Court and Spark,” despite the song’s seemingly buoyant exterior. Another jazz singer, Kurt Elling, gave the most straight-ahead, scat-styled interpretations to such songs as “The Dry from Des Moines” (from “Mingus”) and “Black Crow” (“Hejira”), even if his delivery bordered on jazz-cat parody. (Elling brought an almost Kurt Weill sense of black humor to the proceedings, and one almost expected him to break into “Mack the Knife” at any moment.)
Chaka Khan talked about having to “grow into” many of Joni’s snake-like compositions, but her unfettered passion brought heat to the otherwise subdued “Strange Boy” and “Sweet Bird,” milking the latter song’s continuing refrain of “Guesses based on what each set of time and change is touching” like an extended solo.
On the surface, Aimee Mann seemed perfectly suited to Joni’s alternately rueful and brittle musings on star-crossed romance, especially the evening’s tour-de-force touch: the performance of “The Hissing of Summer Lawns” — Joni’s daring and risky follow-up to her biggest hit album, “Court and Spark” — from beginning to end (with the exception of “Harry’s House/Centerpiece). At the time of its release in 1975, many fans were put off by the album’s dark themes of suburban alienation: desperate housewives leading soulless, medicated lives and the money-grubbing spouses who’ve reduced them to hollowed-out trophies.
While Mann’s flat vocal delivery is appropriate for her own keen writing, but her performance seemed wobbly at times (she almost sounded like a female version of Joni fellow Canadian transplant, Neil Young) and only served to underscore the dynamic range Joni exhibited in her prime.
It was left to Glen Hansard (best known as the impoverished singer from the movie “Once”) to bring out the inherent musicality of some of Joni’s most complex works like “Coyote” — interpreted by some as a reflection of Joni’s cat-and-mouse affair with the young playwright Sam Shepherd in the wake of their joy ride in Bob Dylan’s chaotic Rolling Thunder Review tour — and the almost impossible “Shadows and Light,” with its ecclesiastical prophesies: “Every picture has its shadows/And it has some sort of light/Blindness, blindness and sight.”
There it was, like one of Joni’s paintings, the measure of her work brushed with every manner of color and texture, from cool to hot, soft to hard-edged, with Greig Leisz’s pedal steel guitar weaving it all together into a dreamy tapestry, and Shorter adding lyrical accents that more than made up for his listless playing on Hancock’s own Joni tribute album, “River: The Joni Letters.”
Now if they could gather these players once again to play “Hejira” front to back my life will be complete.
(Photos courtesy of Noel Vasquez/WireImage.com)