Joni Mitchell stopped making music for the marketplace nearly 25 years ago. It says much about Mitchell's considerable and varied talents that such albums as Hejira, Don Juan's Reckless Daughter and the still-controversial Mingus - all discs that initially met with a cool reception - have since found critical respect, if often grudgingly so.
Mitchell initially found fame as the quintessential fragile acoustic folk singer-songwriter - a role she quickly outgrew. With Court and Spark (1974) she was working with jazz musicians and singing and playing guitar with startling ingenuity. Jazz became the textural background for her work, and she wrote songs that challenged critics, fans and her own vocal skills. As she has grown older, she has made no effort to woo a younger audience; she makes music she loves, and if people come - fine.
The two-disc Travelogue is Mitchell's latest - and according to recent interviews, her last - disc. In keeping with her artist's vision, and her desire to make music that challenges, Travelogue is Mitchell's look back through a career in which her favorite music was rarely in agreement with the songs treasured by critics and fans. But this is her disc. She picked the songs and - no surprise - she made the decision to re-record them in a fresh and, to many, odd manner.
Travelogue mixes performances by top jazz players - pianist Herbie Hancock, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, drummer Brian Blades, bassist Larry Klein - and drapes them in big-band and symphonic arrangements that are worlds away from the more conventional settings and arrangements of the original versions. Fans of such early classics as "For The Roses," "Woodstock" and "The Circle Game" may see the new arrangements as little more than gratuitous sax and senseless violins.
In truth, these arrangements present the singer and her music in settings that bring fresh beauty and intrigue to the songs. For those who care to meet the challenge, the fresh texture and drama given to such songs as "Hejira," "Cherokee Louise" and "Sex Kills" are extraordinary in their invention and beauty.
It's hard not to miss Mitchell's guitar playing - she is a fabulous guitarist whose love of odd tunings and chordal voicings quickly set her apart from her fellow singer-songwriters. Her voice has deepened and grown distinctive from age and cigarettes. She may not possess the crystalline voice of old, but her voice, no less piercing of heart, now boasts the flexibility of a seasoned jazz singer and the wisdom that comes from years of self-examination and the revelations of the changing world.
For true fans, Travelogue is a lush pleasure filled with depth and dimension that are revealed upon each listen. If this truly is Mitchell's final recording, it is a perfect way to say goodbye - precisely performed, perfectly paced and just puzzling enough to make the malleable fan smile with pleasure.