My path to the music of Joni Mitchell was a bit unconventional. Unlike many of my peers, I was not a teenage Mitchell devotee. I became obsessed with jazz in my teens so while many of my contemporaries were listening to BLUE and LADIES OF THE CANYON, I was listening to KIND OF BLUE and A LOVE SUPREME. As time went on I moved from my original interest in instrumental Jazz to the vocal greats—Ella, Sarah, Billie, Nat, Sinatra ...
With the release of Joni's 2000 standards album BOTH SIDES NOW the world I had been living in had a head-on collision with Joni Mitchell. And that collision led me to look back at her earlier work.
LADY IN SATIN (Columbia, 1958)
This album was Billie's favorite of her work and though I can't quite get behind the chorus in the background, it's amazing singing.
BOTH SIDES NOW (Reprise, 2000)
You can hear that Joni knows Billie's vocal but (here come the thunder claps) I prefer Joni's version: the emotion, the phrasing, the acting and, of course, Vince Mendoza's ridiculous arrangement. I'm listening again now and getting chills. Oh, yeah, there's always Wayne's solo ... for the jazz purist.
Answer Me, My Love
BOTH SIDES NOW (Reprise, 2000)
My favorite track on the album (of many, many favorites). Usually makes me actually weep. You cannot overlook Joni's taste in collaborators. Wayne Shorter, Vince Mendoza, Peter Erskine on drums ... she hears and chooses the very best in jazz. And listen to Wayne's edgy, emotional solo.
LADIES OF THE CANYON (Reprise, 1970)
Listen to the words of this song. As a jazz singer who has so many underappreciated friends in Los Angeles, this one also made me cry a little. This is written by someone who deeply appreciates musicians and knows that the greatest ones are often unheralded.
The Drycleaner From Des Moines
MINGUS (Asylum, 1979)
OK, jazzer haters, try singing along with Joni and learning this melody and Joni's brilliant lyric. For real! I wish you luck. It took me months. Peter Erskine suggested it for my Joni project (he's playing here — deeep groove!) and I thought "a Blues in Bb ... no problem!" I had to slow down and just transcribe every bar, every note and rhythm, and then learn it. And of course Jaco's playing and horn arrangement! Off the hook. (In my version I had to slow it down.)
Goodbye Porkpie Hat
MINGUS (Asylum, 1979)
Again, it's all fun and games to criticize until you actually try to sing what she's singing! This melody is so difficult and she nails it. And I say this as someone who sings Jimmy Rowles' The Peacocks and Bill Evans' Very Early. If you want to gain a little more respect, check out the video or live CD SHADOWS AND LIGHT made at the Santa Barbara County Bowl in 1980. She's with Jaco, Michael Brecker, Pat Metheny—I mean, damn!—and she is right with them. Her singing is sublime and her version of Porkpie on this is really something. Plus, Jaco does an instrumental solo interlude. Wow!
All I Want
BLUE (Reprise, 1971)
I am including this because learning the lyrics and trying to remember them made me realize just how carefully and perfectly crafted they are. To show you what I mean, check out the patterns used in the lyrics of Porter's It's Alright With Me and Joni Mitchell's All I Want. Joni's internal rhymes and flowing references remind me of Porter—but they are advanced calculus to Porter's perfect algebra.
Tierney Sutton Band
It's Alright With Me (written by Cole Porter)
DESIRE (Telarc, 2008)
Cole Porter: It's Alright With Me lyric excerpt:
1. "It's the wrong time and the wrong place. Though your face is charming it's the wrong face. It's not his face but such a charming face, that it's alright with me."
2. "It's the wrong song in the wrong style. Though your smile is lovely it's the wrong smile. It's not his smile but such a lovely smile that it's alright with me."
3. "It's the wrong game with the wrong chips. Though your lips are tempting they're the wrong lips. They're not his lips, but they're such tempting lips."
Joni Mitchell: All I Want lyric excerpt (choruses only):
1."I wanna be strong I wanna laugh along I wanna belong to the living. Alive alive I wanna get up and jive. I wanna wreck my stockings in some jukebox dive. Do you want do you want do you want to dance with me? Do you wanna take a chance of maybe finding some sweet romance with me baby?"
2."I wanna talk to you. I wanna shampoo you. I wanna renew you again and again. Applause applause, life is our cause. When I think of your kisses my mind seesaws. Do you see, do you see, do you see how you hurt me baby?"
3. "I wanna have fun. I wanna shine like the sun. I wanna be the one that you wanna see. I wanna knit you a sweater, wanna write you a love letter, wanna make you feel better, make you feeel ... free.
And all of this leaves out the discussion of Joni's vocal excellence—pitch, time, diction, phrasing—in all phases of her career.
Of course there are the obvious "Jazz/Joni" choices. I absolutely love Diana Krall's cover of A Case Of You and I chose not to do one on my project because I felt it had been done so many times well already. The same with River and a few others. I've always loved Kate McGarry's version of Chelsea Morning. There is so much for jazz lovers in the work of Joni Mitchell and I've come to believe that we all go through our "Joni Mitchell phase"—some at 16, some at 40 (me), some at 90.
If you haven't yet, I suggest you start yours today.
Vocalist Tierney Sutton's new release, AFTER BLUE (BFM Jazz), is her own tribute to Joni Mitchell.