Nowadays Joni Mitchell is thought of as a legend and a classic — which sure beats trying to put a specific label on her. You can’t. But there was a period in Mitchell’s career, roughly 1975 to 1979, where after making her most commercially successful album, “Court And Spark,” she defied the record industry’s attempt to stick her in the pop-rock slot and tried to stretch herself with the help of a strong infusion from the world of jazz. Hence her so-called “jazz period,” which several of her musical colleagues and worshippers attempted to sum up (minus Joni herself) in a laudably challenging Hollywood Bowl program dubbed “Joni’s Jazz.”
That period still polarizes Mitchell fans to this day. She lost a lot of her mass following, but gained the respect and love of a new, albeit smaller, cadre of musicians and listeners with an increasingly-innovative string of albums — “The Hissing Of Summer Lawns,” “Hejira,” “Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter” and finally “Mingus” — before beating a retreat part-way toward the mainstream in the 1980s.
With remarkable self-discipline, “Joni’s Jazz” stuck resolutely to its mission — exploring music from “Court And Spark” through “Mingus” with only one out-of-period inclusion (“Two Grey Rooms” from 1991’s “Night Ride Home”). Part one concentrated on selections from “Court And Spark” and “Hejira,” with but one number from “Mingus” and regrettably none from “Don Juan.” Part two consisted only of a rendition of the complete “The Hissing Of Summer Lawns” album, minus the non-Mitchell-penned interpolation of “Centerpiece.”
Equally remarkably, none of the guest vocalists and instrumentalists were permitted to dominate the show. Herbie Hancock, after introducing the concert, nearly vanished, playing on only three songs, while his friend Wayne Shorter stripped his already-pithy soprano sax down to the bare minimum of cannily-placed high notes.
Aimee Mann hewed the closest to Mitchell’s folk-rock leanings, even in vocal range. Cassandra Wilson basically did her own dusky-voiced thing, which fit well, while Chaka Khan’s soul-gospel voice was sometimes a bit too hot for the material. For Kurt Elling, it was hit-or-miss — best on the loose, jazzy vocalese of “The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines” and surprisingly moving on “Edith And The Kingpin” — while Irish singer Glen Hansard’s finest moment was the hymn-like, harmonium-backed closer, “Shadows And Light.”
Drummer Brian Blade and keyboardist Jon Cowherd labored hard to capture the flavor of the albums in their arrangements, with original Mitchell cast member Tom Scott on tenor sax for authenticity. Yet there were crucial colors like the menacing Moog synthesizer of “The Jungle Line,” the haunting horn riff of “The Boho Dance” or funky bass riff of “”Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow” that were either missing, buried or smudged.
What did come through was a subdued, relaxed and even melancholic ambience — not the letter of Joni’s sound world, nor a radical departure either, but emotionally right, leaving attendees with a enigmatic feeling of contemplation rather than exhilaration.