If the legendary Don Juan had to pick a restless daughter, he would probably pick the forever changing songstress of bitter and sweet loves, Joni Mitchell. Like herself, her new album "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter," shows a progression into new and previously untouched fields in music.
To me, the mark of a true artist is marked by one's ability not to become laden with past achievements and glories but to always push on to something new. This is something that people like Elton John and David Bowie have been unable to achieve because of their constant and all too subtle crossovers into the realm of a rhythm and blues context. Neither have achieved the success of such crossover as Jeff Beck (from rock to jazz) or the blue-eyed soul of singers Robert Palmer and Steve Winwood. Bowie and John's crossovers have only served to muddle their pasts and befuddle their fans.
The point here is that Ms. Mitchell has always progressed. First, as the folk singer from Canada who played the coffee house circuit in the early sixties to the jazz oriented singer of the early and middle seventies. All along this progression she has kept in touch with her roots and has refined her songwriting and singing techniques to the point of both being very distinct from the rest of the current music scene.
This album is a marked departure, a voyage in new areas of music that will become style in the future. For Ms. Mitchell has always had the ability to stay ahead of her competition by being innovative to the point of having her current style adapted two years later by the rest of the music scene.
On "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter," Ms. Mitchell continues to use the jazz backgrounds to her greatest advantage. But on this album she incorporates calypso and Latin rhythms into her sound folk background. This fusion is best described as different and interesting in that most of us are not used to such as extensive use of percussion except perhaps what musician Carlos Santana uses on his albums. The percussion as well as the bass is brought to the forefront on the album to become what I believe, the primary instruments, a marked difference from the ever dominant guitar found on most albums.
On her other albums such as "Court and Spark," "The Hissing of Summer Lawns," and "Hejira," as well as the live album "Miles of Aisles" she had used studio musicians. Her old backup band was the "L.A. Express" which featured reed-man Tom Scott and drummer John Guerin. She also made extensive use of studio musicians such as Wilton Felder, Joe Sample and Larry Carlton who are from the group "The Crusaders." At the same time she also used rock musicians such as Jim Gordon, Robbie Robertson, Graham Nash and David Crosby.
Her music has thus incorporated the best of rock, jazz and folk to form her own interesting style. It was pointed out by the New York Times rock critic John Rockwell that her use of lyrics and unique musical style, make Joni Mitchell one of the most influential musicians of the seventies.
On this album she continues to write some of the best lyrics in current popular music. Her lyrics rank her with the likes of Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, and Peter Townsend. She continues to paint verbal images of long lost love and the search for something to hold on to even though she has been hurt in the past. Her voice cannot be compared to anyone else and even though it is not as powerful as Cleo Laine, a jazz singer whose voice is often compared to an instrument, the way she sings her lyrics and holds her notes puts her in a class by herself.
When new female singers are introduced in the music scene, their voices are almost inevitably compared to Linda Ronstadt, Carly Simon or maybe Natalie Cole. Rarely are they compared to Joni Mitchell. That's an indication of the uniqueness of her voice.
As for the album, she uses the members of what now may currently be the finest and most innovative jazz group in the world, "Weather Report." She showcases the bass playing of Jaco Pastorius. Along with the driving percussion section of Alejandro Acuna and Manelo Bandrena [sic] and the emotional soprano sax of Wayne Shorter, they represent a formidable quartet. Also making guest appearances are Chaka Chan of "Rufus," and Airto [Moreira], who was Downbeat magazine's percussionist of the year. As usual, John Guerin provides strong backup on drums.
To me the best song on the album is "Off Night Backstreet." In this song the main character confronts her lover about another woman after she finds this stranger's long black hair in the bathroom drain. We hear the main character exclaim:
Now she's moved in with you
She's keeping your house neat
And your sheets sweet
And I'm your off night backstreet.
This song showcases one of the fine aspect of Ms. Mitchell's lyrics. She has the ability to write from a women's [sic] perspective and yet make it believable to the male listener. This may sound trite, but I've always felt that I personally enjoy a song better if I can identify with the lyrics in some way. Ms. Mitchell's lyrics transcend sex and make it easy for anyone to identify with the song.
Jaco Pastorius' bass is highlighted on "Cotton Avenue" which is Ms. Mitchell's ode to the streets of Harlem. She talks of this section as if it's a magical place that transcends poverty and other problems. She portrays its streets as a 24-hour festival to rhythm and blues. Perhaps this is a very idealistic view of what isn't usually considered a tourist spot of New York City. Yet when the lyrics talk of a place where you can go and chase your blues away you believe them.
In the song "Jericho" she talks of letting down her defenses to be a subject of love's psychological abuse for one more time:
"Just like Jericho" I said
Let these walls come tumbling down
I said it like I finally found the way
To keep the good feelings alive
I said it like it was something to strive for
I'll try to keep my self open to you
The song like the whole album is about escape, escape from the hurt and the trials of life. A chronicler of feelings, Ms. Mitchell has effectively recorded the feeling that one experiences in the search for someone or something special and the hurt one experiences when it doesn't work.
The song "Dreamland" features the percussion section of Badrena, Airto, Acuna and Don Alias while the vocals are sung by Ms. Mitchell and Chaka Khan. This song written by Ms. Mitchell, previously appeared on Roger McGuinn's album "Thunderbird": Though his version was more rock and rollish, I like this version better. It's primarily due to the strong percussion work of the above mentioned quartet and the emotion of Ms. Mitchell's voice.
The most adventurous song on the album is "Paprika Plains." It takes up the whole second side of the album and though very adventurous, it has no real focal point to make it work as it should. Yet through all its faults, the song is very interesting. It features an orchestra with Ms. Mitchell playing the piano and singing the vocals.
The song is about a girl who is trapped by the rush and the sights and sounds of a large city. She yearns for the wide open spaces that marked her childhood. Reading the lyrics and knowing that Ms. Mitchell is from the farmlands of Canada, you could call the song autobiographical. What makes this song click is its degree of identification with everyday experiences. How many times have you been in an unpleasant situation when you wished you were someplace else and all of a sudden you were, if only in your mind. The problem with the song occurs about three minutes from the end, when it breaks into a jazz number featuring a sax solo by Wayne Shorter. The solo should have been longer.
There are other songs that are very good on this album but the ones I've mentioned are the strong points. Once again Joni Mitchell has crossed a new frontier into new and diverse musical styles without losing touch with herself or her past. If you have some money to spend on a double album and like Joni Mitchell or would like to try something new to get out of the doldrums of AM music, give this album a try.
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