An "accidental musician." That's how Joni Mitchell describes herself when pressed. She says, "I'm a painter first ... and I apply painting principles to music."
Mitchell paints images that hang on an increasing number of walls around the world, but she is also a painter of sound, a multifaceted musician whose gifts are impossible to reduce to predictable labels of pop, folk or jazz.
Saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter was one of the key members of the 1979 Mingus album, a collaboration between Mitchell and jazz great Charlie Mingus (it was to be Mingus's last recording before his death). A consummate jazz artist, Shorter entered the Mitchell sphere at a time when he was busy co-leading the highly successful jazz fusion group Weather Report. A trained visual artist, Shorter approaches music synaesthetically, the way Mitchell does. It's an approach that has served both of them well in a musical relationship that spans 36 years and 10 albums.
CBC Music reached Shorter at his home in West Hollywood, Calif., to get his take on the jazz in Mitchell's palette. The interview is directly below, and you can scroll down for a video playlist and some deeper context.
You have recorded on almost every Joni Mitchell studio album since Don Juan's Reckless Daughter in 1977. It seems you and Joni were a good musical fit right from the start.
Actually, she had a sense of feeling that I was joining her as a painter. She likes to paint and I majored in fine arts before music. And she said, "You're playing like you have a paint brush, you know." It was like that kind of uh ... something that doesn't even have anything to do with music.
What was it like at recording sessions? How did those work?
It mostly worked like when we did a take, one take or something like that, we'd do another one, and then she would say, "Do you have any more of that?" And then we'd do another take, something like that. "You got any more in you?" which is like, "Do you have any more of those colours?" without using the word "colours," but that's what it was.
I would give her the entrances and exits and all that stuff. She said "Wow!" And then she would have a number of takes and she would choose from different takes to edit in as if using a paint brush again because, of course, every take was different. She said she wished she could use all of them, but she would highlight the ones that would become the record with what she thought was a large, big, fat rainbow of a palette that she could use.
Wow, that's a beautiful image.
Yeah, so it was like mostly, in fact it was alway like, "You got any more where that came from?" It was always like whatever happens, happens. She knew I was not the kind of person you could ask, "Can you play something this way?" "Can you do it this way?" Uh uh. None a that.
Did the other musicians make suggestions or was it clear that she was leading things?
Oh I don't know. Whenever I did any recording it was always after everyone else had done their contribution. It was always just myself in the studio and her. Joni and myself, and Henry Louie. He was her favourite engineer. He passed away. Later it was Larry [Klein].
What would you say to people who are skeptical of Joni's jazz chops. Is she the real deal?
As an artist and a poet and all that, there's no way to critique, to give a measurement to anyone who would be an adversary to the way in which she rendered her craft. And I would say that her craft spilled over the borders of what people and critics who would want to keep her in a controlled setting. You know what I mean?
Yeah. You can't label what she did, really.
Right. She is a multi-expressive person and that is very rare and unique. And I would just say to those people who still want to have a combatant way to speak about her, a combative manner, just leave her alone.
A select discography of Joni Mitchell's most jazz-inspired albums:
1975: The Hissing of Summer Lawns
Includes performances by guitarists Larry Carlton and Robben Ford, members of the Crusaders, Chuck Findley and Bud Shank. The lead track, "In France they Kiss on Main Street," brought forward a richly detailed sound with jazz harmonies to a wide audience. "Harry's House/Centrepiece" uses music by jazz greats Harry Sweets Edison and Jon Hendricks.
This is the album that introduced bassist Jaco Pastorius's distinctive sound into the mix and for some, including drummer Brian Blade, changed everything.
"There was so much description emotionally in the poetry and the harmony [of Hejira]," Blade explains. "You know there's a question in that sound ... Joni's words and music started to speak to me in a way that other music hadn't before."
- Excerpted from the Studio 360 blog.
1977: Don Juan's Reckless Daughter
Shorter appears for the first time on this experimental double LP recording, along with Latin percussionists Airto Moreira, Don Alias, Alejandro Acuña and Manolo Badrena.
This homage to, and collaboration with, Mingus marks the peak of Mitchell's jazz output. It also sees Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter record together for the first time in five years.
2000: Both Sides Now
Includes standards such as "You're My Thrill" and "Stormy Weather," scored for orchestra.
An extension of the orchestral jazz approach but with almost entirely original material. Sidemen Hancock and Shorter are joined by Canadian trumpet and flugelhorn player Kenny Wheeler.
Jazz is pretty much at the top of the list for Mitchell when she's listening for pleasure. In her recent feature-length interview for Q, Mitchell told host Jian Ghomeshi that she digs Duke Ellington more than just about anyone else, especially while shooting pool with a particular friend. Go to her discography and you will find great jazz artists peppered throughout the releases, going back to the mid-'70s - a further testament to her immersion in the genre.
The jazz admiration apparently runs both ways. Herbie Hancock's River: The Joni Letters, a collection of Mitchell's compositions, won album of the year at the 2008 Grammy Awards, beating out competition from Kanye West, Amy Winehouse and others. It was an astonishing feat for a jazz recording, paralleled only by Stan Getz and João Gilberto for Getz/Gilberto in 1965.
In 1978, the brilliant and often cantankerous bassist and composer Charles Mingus reached out to Mitchell with an unusual proposition. He asked if she would take on the job of paring down T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets into a manageable length, which he would then set to music. Mitchell told Mingus: "I would rather condense the Bible," and declined.
But the ever resourceful Mingus had a backup plan for a collaboration: he gifted Mitchell with six new compositions, dedicated to her. This was at a time when he was so debilitated by Lou Gehrig's disease that he couldn't play his bass or even physically write notes on a sheet of manuscript paper. He could only speak and sing out his ideas for other people to hear.
Mitchell gratefully accepted his offering of the pieces and set to work, with the wheelchair-bound Mingus by her side. She composed lyrics and rehearsed the music with Mingus and players who dropped in to work ideas through. The Mingus album was to be the last recording Mingus ever made, and Mitchell's pinnacle jazz release. The album emerged the following year, shortly after its namesake's death, and included four of the six compositions along with snippets of conversation and playful interaction.