For most of the past two decades, Joni has been following a path that has been apart from the commercial center of pop music, yet her songwriting is as vital as ever; indeed, I would place her two most recent records, Night Ride Home and Turbulent Indigo, among her best. That these records have been largely ignored by radio says more about the pitiful state of radio than about the quality of the discs. The radio snub is nothing new to Joni, either. Back in 1977, she followed up the popular Hejira album with an ambitious double-record set, Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, that remains one of the "lost" gems of her career.
Like Hejira, it featured the revolutionary fretless bassist Jaco Pastorius, soprano sax ace Wayne Shorter (both then peaking with Weather Report) and drummer John Guerin, as well as a spicy battery of percussionists on several tracks, including Airto, Manolo Badrena, Alejandro Acuna and Don Alias (Joni's boyfriend during that era). Most of the songs are driven by Joni's crystalline vocals and always-unusual guitar voicings.
The anomaly on the album is a 16-plus minute opus called "Paprika Plains," which occupied all of side two when the album was released (it's now all on a single CD). This is surely one of Joni's grandest works, both lyrically and musically. It flows effortlessly back and forth between the past and present, childhood and adulthood, earth and sky, memory and imagination, innocence and despair. In part it deals with the sad plight of Canada's Indians - romantic figures from her childhood who later "traded their beads for bottles/Smashed on Railway Avenue/And they cut off their braids and lost some link with nature." It is also concerned with the security of childhood visions and with the destruction of the natural world - even "the vast and bleak and Godforsaken Paprika Plains" - by man. Weighty stuff, to be sure, but it's handled imaginatively.
Instrumentally, it features Joni on piano rather than guitar for a change, backed by a beautifully arranged orchestra that helps give the piece the sweeping grandeur of the land her words evoke. At the song's heart is a long instrumental passage of piano and orchestra (in the accompanying lyric booklet, there is a lengthy poem designed to be read by the listener during this part of the song). When Joni's voice comes back for a restatement of the sonorous main theme, lyrically the scene shifts to a crowded barroom, and then there's a funky, churning instrumental coda by Shorter, Pastorius, Joni and Guerin that takes us out of the dreamworld until the final notes of the piece, when the strings and a singing bassline from Jaco quietly end it. Breathtaking!
Beginning with her Clouds album in 1969 and continuing through 1982's Wild Things Ruin Fast, Joni cut all her albums (12 in all) with engineer Henry Lewy, usually working at A&M Studios in Los Angeles. The German-born Lewy was already a veteran in the L.A. recording scene when he first hooked up with Joni, having worked on everything from The Chipmunks (at Liberty Studios) to the Mamas & the Papas and Johnny Rivers (both beside Bones Howe at United & Western). Mainly because of the reputation he garnered from working with Joni, during the '70s and '80s Lewy became an in-demand producer/engineer, especially for singer-songwriters, including Van Morrison, Stephen Bishop, Joan Armatrading, Leonard Cohen and others. He's been retired for several years now.
Back in 1983, Lewy told me, "Most of the artists I've worked with already know what they want because they're artists with their own vision. They're individualistic, and to try to change them or shape them to fit my preconceived notions would be to take away the heart of the issue - their creativity." In the case of Joni, he said, "She didn't need a producer per se, but more of a third ear, a catalyst between her and her material. I was a teacher and listener at first. When we first got together, she didn't know anything about the studio, really. When we'd overdub vocals, for instance, she was so insecure that she had to hold a guitar. As the years went on, she picked up the engineering aspect more and more, and today  she knows what a studio can do for her and she knows how to get what she wants."
When Lewy and I spoke again recently, he said that during the entire course of their working relationship, he used the same approach to recording Joni - namely, always getting the guitar and vocal (or piano and vocal) down first, with Joni singing and playing at the same time, and then building the other tracks around that core. As he noted in '83, "If there are too many players, she has a tendency to lose the intricacies of her guitar playing, and she'll play with them instead of them playing with her. And since her guitar is the heart of the arrangements, you lose something when that happens."
For the Don Juan album, Joni tracked all of her vocal, guitar and piano parts (including the long piano section in "Paprika Plains") first in A&M Studio C, using two Neumann U87s on the piano and a U87 on the vocal, going into the studio's venerable HAECO (Holzer Audio Engineering) board and a 3M-79 24-track. "I always left her voice very dry," Lewy says. "I wanted the voice way out there so you could always understand the words, but at the same time I wanted you to be able to hear the band distinctly, too."
It was Jaco Pastorius who suggested to Joni that Michael Gibbs take a stab at orchestrating the song. "Michael met us in L.A., and he and Joni decided what instruments were needed," Lewy says. "Then we had to go to New York because Michael taught at a school nearby." The orchestral session took place at Columbia Studio C in Manhattan, "a big theatre stage," Lewy recalls, with Columbia staffer Frank Laico engineering. The orchestra played to the master tapes of Joni's piano and vocal part. "I left about ten tracks for the orchestra, so at least I had some control at the mixdown stage." Lewy says. "We did it in a three-hour session, plus half an hour of overtime.
"After the New York date, we flew to London, as that was where we could get Jaco, Wayne Shorter and John Guerin all together. Basing Studio was a jazz studio, small but efficient, with good tea and biscuits. We did all of Jaco, Wayne and Guerin's parts [for the entire album] there. Jaco was [recorded] direct, and we'd often double-track him to get an even bigger sound. We'd use a mic on Wayne, and usually we'd put a lot of digital echo on the saxophone to really stretch it. Once we finished recording there, they made a quick and dirty mix for us, and Joni, John [Guerin] and I took it to L.A., where we finished the overdubs in Studio A at A&M." The album was mixed in about five weeks by Joni, Lewy and assistant Steve Katz at A&M's Studio Mix One.
"There were many overdubs on the vocals," Lewy remembers," and for the orchestral part, there were many starts and stops, as Joni decided how long it should be. As a matter of fact, I conked out - as I wasn't too well - and Steve Katz edited the orchestral part with Joni. We also fixed some of Joni's vocals in the mixdown. In the time between recording in Studio C and recording in New York and London, she decided to fix certain parts of the vocal."
Of course, the magic of a well-executed recording like this is that in the end, the production sounds completely seamless, as if Joni, the band and the orchestra had all been together in the same room and had nailed a perfect take. "Paprika Plains" remains perhaps the most ambitious single work of Joni's career (parts of Mingus come close), still overlooked by most of her fans but not diminished at all by time. "What I love about Joni," Lewy said in '83, "is that she never sits still for a second. She's always thinking, always moving forward. She grows with every album, which is, ironically, one of the things that turns some fans off. They get used to her doing one thing and then she changes. She has a real appetite for new ideas."