Her report cards used to read, "Joan does not relate well." She flunked out of high school in twelfth grade, entered into an early marriage and divorce, and delved into folk singing. Soon after that, Joni Mitchell became a songwriter of some reknown [sic] when Judy Collins had a top ten hit in 1968 with her song, "Both Sides Now."
Mitchell made successful albums which featured her dreamy, ethereal portraits accompanied by acoustic guitar. She carved an image for herself and when she wanted to step out of it, in 1975, she found that it was not going to be easy.
The media and the public were used to the Joni Mitchell of the late sixties, and that's what they wanted. Therefore, when she released the avant-garde and unexpected Hissing of Summer Lawns with its jazz influences, critics lambasted her work. Mitchell learned to ignore them and go the way she felt she had to progress. Hejira followed the next year, Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, and then Mingus. None of these approximated the success of her earlier albums.
In 1978, she had been contacted by Charles Mingus to collaborate on what would be his last work. After his death, Mitchell released an album (Mingus) which contained these collaborations, completing her eventual move toward jazz, and thoroughly shaking the music world.
Shadows and Light was recorded live in Santa Barbara, in late 1979, and contains interpretations of Mitchell's later works, many from the Mingus album. Her band includes Jaco Pastorius on bass, Don Alias on drums, Pat Metheny on lead guitar, and Michael Brecker on saxophone. The Persuasions assist on vocals.
The album opens with a brief, tender collage which melts some dialogue from "Rebel Without A Cause" (Father: You can't be idealistic all your life"; Son: "Except to yourself") into Frankie Lymon singing, "No no no, I'm not a juvenile delinquent."
Mitchell's voice remains cool and breezy as ever. Her vocal dexterity is most evident when she breaks into jazz phrasing. There are stunning moments here, among them "Coyote," the incredible half-sung, half-spoken love story. And in "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," when she counsels, "love is never easy...now we are black and white / embracing in the New York night / very likely we'll be driven out of town."
There is a spirited, kick-ass rendering of the Frankie Lymon classic, "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" with the Persuasions singing backup, and the delicate power chant "Shadows and Light." My personal favorite is the deliciously percussive "Dreamland." And some early works like "Free Man in Paris" and "Woodstock" are here as well.
Commercial acceptance rarely is a hallmark of quality, so if this record has not been widely noticed that's probably why. But then, Joni Mitchell is probably used to that. She has always remained honest to herself and for that she deserves respect.
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