Joni Mitchell: 10 Musical Moments

Joni_Mitchell_(1975)Joni Mitchell stands in a class by herself.

She is too often irritatingly referred to as a sort of “female Bob Dylan”, which still makes my hackles rise and keeps my gag reflex in good working order. Nothing against Bob, of course. But, the two artists are not to be compared, least of all while using the tag of “female” as a modifier, and ultimately as a way to reduce her significance on the basis of gender. I will say no more about it (maybe).

Hailing from the Canadian prairies, Mitchell took her art to the folk scenes of Calgary, Toronto, Detroit, New York, and eventually to La-La land and the Laurel Canyon scene starting in the 1960s and on through the 1970s. She started off with a girl-with-guitar hippie-chick image, where she has often stayed in the minds of the uninitiated. But, Mitchell’s work is expansive and fearless well beyond labels or eras, even from her earliest period. Lately, she’s made the headlines because of her ill-health, and also due to her rather cantankerous attitudes having to do with the music industry as well as toward her contemporaries.

But, it is her art that remains to be her strongest and most vital voice, sometimes with that cantankerous outlook built in, sometimes not. And as such, I hereby present ten tracks of Joni, ten musical beacons in a galaxy of bright points that measure her unique and far-reaching artistic journey. Some are hits, while others are simply examples of her fearlessness in an industry in which she thrived, and against which struggled in equal measure.

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Joni Mitchell Sings “Goodbye Porkpie Hat”

Joni Mitchell MingusListen to this track by jazz-enthusiast and singer songwriter Joni Mitchell. It’s “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” as taken from her 1979 LP Mingus named after her artistic patron at the time, the incomparable Charles Mingus.

This song is a jazz standard, first appearing in its original instrumental form on Mingus’ 1959 album Ah Um, and a tribute to saxophone legend Lester Young, the wearer of the signature headwear who died that year at the age of forty-nine.

Mitchell had veered into jazz territory on a number of albums previous to this one, working with several jazz musicians who were skilled enough to work within the framework of her penchant for open tunings. Despite its very experimental and non-commercial nature, the Mingus album still managed to peak in the top twenty on Billboard. This is possibly due to the fact that Mingus himself had died after contributing to six new songs on the album, plus two others from his existing portfolio, including this one. After a career of pushing the envelope musically speaking, this was his last musical pursuit.

Perhaps it’s fitting that “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” was the closer of this record, originally a tribute to one musician becoming something of a tribute to another years later, complete with lyrics by Mitchell especially for the project. But, I think this song evokes something else, too.

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Joni Mitchell Sings “The Last Time I Saw Richard”

Joni Mitchell BlueListen to this song by singer-songwriting colossus, and confessional style architect Joni Mitchell. It’s “The Last Time I Saw Richard”, a deep cut from her essential 1971 Blue album. The record as a whole touches on the breakdown of relationships, the personal journeys both geographical and spiritual that result, and the conclusions one can come to about identity after the smoke has cleared.

This particular tune is concerned with a meeting between former friends, or lovers, and how each one has or has not changed since they last saw each other. There are streaks of melancholy, and of cynicism held in balance with idealism here that make it a compelling tale to be observed from afar, much in the way you would while reading a short story, or watching a scene in a movie.

The song is thought to be based on Mitchell’s relationship with former husband Chuck Mitchell, from whom she takes her professional last name. In this, it’s in good company on a record that certainly reveals its writer, helping to build her reputation as an artist who typified a “confessional” style of songwriting. Yet despite a lot of personal content, there are deeper themes that pass from a tale specific to the life of its writer, and sail into the realm of the universal, and very often into the life of the listener, too. Read more

Joni Mitchell Sings ‘In France They Kiss On Main Street’

joni_hissingHere’s a clip of the original folky-chick turned jazz fusion crossover abettor Joni Mitchell with a crack team of musos (Pat Matheny, Jaco Pastorius, Michael Brecker, and others).  It’s ‘In France They Kiss On Main Street’, the studio version of which appears on the  1975 album The Hissing of Summer Lawns. For a tune that evokes the continental practices of Gallic culture, it actually turns out to be more about Mitchell’s misspent youth in Canada in the 1950s.

Oddly, the album in question Hissing of Summer Lawns was pronounced to be the worst album of 1975 by Rolling Stone Magazine.  I say oddly because it is such a vital release, crammed with imagery and character which is well demonstrated by this song alone.  Yet, much like Dylan, Joni Mitchell was most likely the victim of the expectations of the press for her to remain as she was .

In Mitchell’s case it was the pose of the sensitive woman with an acoustic guitar, or behind a piano, in ‘confessional’ mode as she was on 1971’s Blue.  No one expected jazz, even if it was heavily hinted at on 1974’s Court and Spark.  And no one expected Burundi drumming, as featured on the track ‘the Jungle Line’ here on Hissing…

Despite criticisms by the rock press at the time, the album is now looked upon as an artistic turning point for her, a switch-over from one era to another.  As successful as this album was commercially, no one would ever expect her to repeat herself again.  And she wouldn’t disappoint on that score, even if universal critical praise for her next few releases into the 1980s wouldn’t be a reality.

For me, it’s the strength of individual songs that sells the record.  And this is one of my favorites.  The optimism of youth in this song, and the feelings of immortality experienced only in that unique way by teenagers is perfectly captured.  It is a perfect soundtrack for a sunny day when the world is full of possibilities, poised on a precipice of wonder.  Yet, like the impressionist paintings from which Mitchell herself draws inspiration, you never get lessons about any of these things.  You just get suggestions of characters, emotional tones, and of course impressions of that 50s teenage world.

Maybe the strength of this tune lay in the contrast between a naive 1950s and a jaded 1970s, or more pointedly between childhood innocence depicted and adult experience in which the song was written and performed.  This of course would be a theme which Mitchell would revisit often, even as her musical curiosity continued to expand. Mitchell would inspire other songwriters to be as curious as she, including Prince, who called this an album that he loved ‘all the way through’.

For more information about Joni Mitchell, be sure to check out Jonimitchell.com.

Enjoy!

Joni Mitchell Performs ‘Black Crow’ Featuring Bassist Jaco Pastorius

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.

Joni Mitchell 1980sRecently, 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.

Jaco Pastorius 1980sAlong 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.

Enjoy!