Here’s a clip of Joni Mitchell on stage with some of her jazz-fusion buddies in 1980, performing her song ‘Black Crow’ which can be heard in its studio incarnation on her 1976 album (and my personal favourite of hers) Hejira. Among the players on stage is electric bassist Jaco Pastorius, who was a constant sideman to Mitchell from that album up until her 1980 live album Shadows and Light.
Recently, I’ve been reading a book called This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel Levitin, a former professional musician and producer and current neuroscientist who specializes in how music is processed by the human brain. It’s an utterly fascinating read. One of the many issues the book talks about is the idea that the brain has its own means of organizing how sound is perceived and executed by musicians who have no formal training.
This type of musician of course includes Mitchell, who developed a style of her own based around non-standard guitar tunings, which is more akin to impressionist painting than it is to standard musical notation. Levitin had dinner with Mitchell one night and asked her about the challenges of this unique approach to songwriting and arranging music for other musicians.
One of the challenges she faced when it came to arranging for a band had to do with what is called the root, or the root note. For example, if the song is in the key of G major, the root is ‘G’. If the song is in the key of C minor, the root is ‘C’. The root is the note that feels like ‘home’ to the ear. Simple enough, right? But because of Mitchell’s use of non-standard tuning, there are often multiple notes which may serve as starting points in a scale, rather than just the one. There is more than one possible ‘home’, in effect.
This was particularly problematic for bassists, who typically rely on the root note of a scale to figure out what it is they’re going to be playing in relation to the chord changes in the song. But, the challenge in playing a Joni Mitchell song is leaving enough space for all of the harmonic possibilities, without limiting them by tying them to one root. For bassists, this meant having to approach their instrument in an entirely new way. And many arguments arose out of this between Mitchell and many of the bass players she worked with; without the specified root, they were lost.
But, not in the case of Jaco Pastorius.
Along with fellow bass innovator Stanley Clarke, Pastorius is known to be one of the most melodically-oriented bassists ever to have taken up the instrument, and Mitchell tells Levitin that Pastorius was one of the few who could operate in the open spaces which her tunings allowed. He had the natural ability to wander around inside one of Joni’s customized tunings, making counter-melodies while leaving each possible harmonic variation in balance with the next.
Although he was a difficult man to work with – very temperamental and often very aggressive in his attitude – his unique playing serves as an anchor, as well as a second melodic voice on her albums of the latter half of the 70s. His ability to draw together basslines, and meld them with his instinctual ear for melody is a prime example of what Levitin talks about with regard to the advantage of one who is not traditionally trained.
In this, he and Mitchell were musical kindred spirits; her lack of formal training allowed her to be unbound by the limits of standard tunings and allowed her to be more impressionistic when it came to the business of composition and arrangements. It also may be why she turned to the jazz community so enthusiastically during this period at the end of the 1970s, as her approach drifted away from her folk-rock roots. Joni Mitchell would of course make peace with the problem of the bass, and even married bass player Larry Klien!
Pastorius had an intense decade from 1976 to 1986, as a session player, band member of jazz fusion giants Weather Report (until 1981), as a solo artist, and as leader of his own band Word of Mouth. Unfortunately, his mental problems (he was bi-polar) and drug abuse made him a difficult personality to deal with. His problems led to a decline in reputation and eventual death in September 1987 when he sustained fatal injuries while engaged in a violent altercation in trying to get into a Florida nightclub. Yet his genius among his peers was never in question.
Check out Joni Mitchell’s official site.
For more information about Jaco Pastorius, check out the fine Jaco Pastorius official site.
Find out more about Daniel Levitin’s book This is Your Brain On Music.