An actor first, and a singer second: that was how Jessica Molaskey described herself during her enthralling Thursday evening concert of Joni Mitchell songs, "Portraits of Joni: Jessica Molaskey Sings Joni Mitchell," at the Allen Room, presented as part of Lincoln Center's American Songbook series.
Interpreting lyrics from an actor's perspective has always lent Ms. Molaskey's musical performances an uncompromising psychological realism along with an element of surprise that few singers bring to their material. In her voice, joy and pain are so intertwined that they're almost the same thing.
In the case of Ms. Mitchell's songs, that struggle results in words that you never noticed before popping out. By phrasing "Both Sides Now" with hesitations, as though it were an ongoing thought process, the song was completely divested of its singsongy trappings. Its conclusions - "I really don't know love at all" and "I really don't know life at all" - became devastating confessions of ignorance and failure offered in a weary tone of defeat. Ms. Molaskey suggested that "Both Sides Now" might be "the darkest song ever written."
Her formidable musical backup was led by her husband, John Pizzarelli, on guitar, Larry Goldings on keyboards, the Brazilian percussionist Duduka Da Fonseca on drums and Leo Traversa on bass. Her teenage daughter, Madeleine Pizzarelli, played guitar and sang backup vocals with her fellow high school student Julia Gargano.
Some of the arrangements approximated those on pop-jazz albums like "Court and Spark." Others transformed Mitchell songs into samba- and bossa nova-driven showpieces that featured Mr. Pizzarelli's jazz guitar and vocal scatting. "Raised on Robbery" was loosened up to become a swinging jazz song. Sung as a duet by Ms. Molaskey and her daughter, "Little Green," the heartbreaking song about giving up a baby for adoption, acquired an extra layer of pathos.
Ms. Molaskey found the saddest corners of "Blue," that "foggy lullaby," in which a tattoo needle is compared to a heroin syringe, and the narrator watches helplessly as the addict to whom the song is addressed sinks into oblivion. Intertwining "The Circle Game" with Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Waters of March" transformed a merry-go-round contemplation of the life cycle into an exalted hymn to the natural world.
Besides Ms. Mitchell, how many songwriters who have seen everything still have the insight and honesty to realize that in the end they know nothing? Besides Ms. Molaskey, how many singers grasp that contradiction?
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