Joni Mitchell had a birthday party to end all birthday parties last year when her 75th was celebrated at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, but it seems safe to say that her famous friends are going to want to want to fete her every year. Three days after her 76th, Mitchell was the subject of a tribute Sunday night held in a considerably smaller venue, Herb Alpert’s intimate Vibrato Grill in Bel Air, where she was feted along with 86-year-old saxophone great Wayne Shorter at the annual Quincy Jones-hosted benefit held by and for the Jazz Foundation of America.
Chaka Khan sang two Mitchell numbers, “Man from Mars” and “Hissing of Summer Lawns,” both of which, she noted, are a part of her usual set — although not usually with an all-star backing band that includes Steve Jordan (the night’s bandleader as well as drummer), Wendy Melvin, Patrice Rushen, Larry Klein, Greg Phillinganes, Alex Acuna, Antoine Roney and Michael Hunter. Khan was the one holdover from last year’s Dorothy Chandler tribute — not surprising, since she and Mitchell first collaborated in the studio in the ’70s and Khan continues to have favored status in Mitchell’s circle to this day. “Anywhere Joni goes, yes, there I am,” Khan laughed.
Wendy & Lisa, of Prince & the Revolution fame, preceded Khan with Melvoin’s vocal reading of “A Strange Boy.” “Lisa and I have not performed any of your music live before,” she told Mitchell from the stage, “because we perform it in our own homes, privately, quietly. So I want you to pretend that you’re sort of watching me in my own home, being affected by what it was like to have you in my body my entire life. I know that that sounds dramatic, but … you’re the single most influential person to my character and to my ability to play this instrument. Everybody’s asked me, ‘How are you feeling about doing this?’ And, you know, in the spirit of complete and full disclosure, I could pass out right now.” Melvin made it through, conscious, to the end of the song, at which point she grabbed a glass of red wine. “I’ve been waiting all day for this,” she said, chugging the whole thing down in one fell swoop before adding: “Here’s to a lot of cases of you.”
Actor Rita Wilson, who’s recently made a nearly wholesale switch into a recording career, paid honor with a song she wrote for her most recent album, titled “Joni.”
Shorter received his musical salute via an incarnation of the house band that also included Ray Parker Jr. on funk guitar and John Patitucci on upright bass — not to mention percussionist Acuna, who, like the honoree, was a stalwart of the fusion group Weather Report — on “Speak No Evil” and “Beauty and the Beast.”
Other performance highlights included New Orleans leading light Davell Crawford opening the show with “There’s a Place for Us” and helping end it with “Blues in G Major,” which had the Foundation’s leading lady and event co-host Wendy Oxenhorn jumping in with an extended, remarkably proficient-for-a-full-time philanthropist harmonica solo.
The annual “Q and You” benefit at Vibrato — which isn’t typically advertised to the general public, since capacity is so small and ensures a sellout — is a complement to the larger “Great Night in Harlem” benefit that the Jazz Foundation puts on in April at the Apollo in Harlem.
Other guests for the evening included actor Danny Glover, who introduced both the Mitchell and Shorter segments; Cameron Crowe, who toasted Mitchell at the after-party at last November’s Dorothy Chandler event and sat at her table for this one; and the great rock photographer Henry Diltz, who was brought on stage to explain the circumstances of several prints of Mitchell in the ’60s and ’70s that were auctioned off (Crowe snared one of them for $8500).
The Jazz Foundation supports musicians in need, with examples cited including those who fell victim to the hurricanes in New Orleans and Puerto Rico, as well as 1100 individual cases a year that include employment support, health care and even the replacement of damaged instruments for indigent musicians.
Both Mitchell and Shorter have struggled with health issues in recent years, and while that made for a good symbolic pairing in terms of where the Jazz Foundation’s charitable inclinations lie, in one case the organization did actually help ride to the rescue. Mitchell presumably had the means to fund her own medical recovery — and, while she did not give a speech, smiled broadly as she walked into the club and chatted cheerfully with visitors — while Shorter admittedly has had a harder time of it recently, and, his legend notwithstanding, needed the org’s help.
Shorter’s wife Carolina gave a brief speech following the one the saxophonist offered from his wheelchair in the house. “I feel like the most privileged human being on earth, just by sharing life with this man,” Carolina Shorter said. “Through the years, Wayne and I have been a part of many fundraisers and supported causes.” But, she said, “We have been really challenged the past two years, with huge health and financial challenges. So our friend Herbie Hancock suggested we reach out to the Jazz Foundation of America. And I wanted everybody to know that yes, we were supported financially almost immediately. It was amazing. But the Jazz Foundation, they did something that money can’t buy. … The difference between the Jazz Foundation and other similar foundations, it’s like if you ‘re walking in the desert parched, and someone will give you water — that’s already fantastic. But with them, you feel like you’ve found a tent with pillows and shade and air conditioning and the most amazing people in the world. So,” she added, “I know that Wayne and I are going to turn this around, and pretty soon we’re gonna be writing the biggest check to support the Foundation, because the work they do is unbelievable.”
“We should all have a wife like that,” said Oxenhorn. “If I had a wife like that, I’d be all right.”