Mitchell is back and Hancock plays Mitchell - Joni's popping out all over the place
Björk, Prince and Sufan Stevens were among the gifted artists featured earlier this year on the album "A Tribute to Joni Mitchell." But none of them could quite measure up to the heady level of this legendary Canadian singer-songwriter, whose restless creative spirit has been now been reborn after a nearly decade-long hiatus.
Mitchell first collaborated with jazz greats Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter in the mid-1970s, and the three have enjoyed an enduring personal and professional friendship since. Their shared artistic sensibilities rise to the fore again on "Shine," Mitchell's first album of new songs since 1998, and "River: The Joni Letters," Hancock's often sublime tribute to her music.
Still, it's surprising Mitchell has a new album at all. In 2002, after the release of "Travelogue," a two-CD set that found her revisiting her past repertoire in an orchestral setting, she announced her retirement.
True to character, she did not go gentle into that good night. Mitchell blasted the music industry as "a corrupt cesspool," a "repugnant" domain of "pornographic pigs" obsessed with "golf and rappers."
She also expressed hope the music industry would "all go down the crapper," while lamenting that "nothing sounded genuine or original. Truth and beauty were passé. I got the picture. I quit the business."
And so she did, at least until last year, when the Alberta Ballet in Mitchell's native Canada contacted her seeking permission to use her songs in a ballet titled "Dancing Joni." The concept so appealed to her that she provided two new songs, "If I Had a Heart" and the Rudyard Kipling adaptation "If," as well as some of her paintings for the ballet's set design.
Now comes "Shine." The 10-song, piano-based collection falters only with a needlessly updated version of her still timely 1970 song "Big Yellow Taxi." Otherwise, the album marks a welcome return by Mitchell, who benefits from the remarkably sensitive playing of pedal-steel guitar wiz Greg Leisz, saxophonist Bob Sheppard and Shorter band drummer Brian Blade.
She sounds angry on the war in Iraq-inspired "Strong and Wrong," cautiously hopeful on the album-closing "If," and cranky (in a mostly good way) on "Bad Dreams."
The album opens with a pastoral, Debussy-influenced instrumental, "One Week Last Summer," which she composed on her piano after not touching a keyboard for 10 years. The songs that follow find her voice more husky than ever, her range notably diminished by years of chain-smoking. This forces Mitchell, 63, to do more with less, and her husky tones suit her soft but sharp songs of social protest better than might be expected.
There is a languid, meditative quality to much of the album, which is musically sparse but full of the sophisticated melodies, jazz-inspired harmonies and graceful wordplay that have long been her trademarks.
Those same qualities shine on much of "River: The Joni Letters," Hancock's heartfelt musical homage. Working with Larry Klein, Mitchell's former husband and musical partner, Hancock assembled an all-star jazz band that features Shorter, Blade, bassist Dave Holland, West African guitarist Lionel Loueke and drum ace Vinie Colaiuta, whose past credits include working with Mitchell, Frank Zappa and Sting.
The album features six guest singers, including Mitchell herself on "Tea Leaf Prophecy," a 1988 gem she and Klein co-wrote. Alas, English songbird Corinne Bailey Rae is simply too young and unseasoned to achieve the necessary gravitas on her version of "River," and Norah Jones tries a bit too hard to put her own stamp on "Court and Spark."
But Brazilian jazz star Luciana Souza digs deep to transform "Amelia" into a marvel of craft and nuance, while Tina Turner delivers a jaw-dropping version of "Edith and the Kingpin" so rich with slow-burning emotional intensity one can only hope she makes an all-ballads album soon. Equally stunning is the exquisite instrumental version of "Both Sides Now," which demonstrates Hancock's affinity for Mitchell's music and his willingness to boldly reinvent it in a way that will surely make her beam.