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Six Degrees of Joni Print-ready version

by Suzanne Lorge
New York City Jazz Record
November 2018
Original article: PDF

Canadian-born singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell, ninth on Rolling Stone's list of The 100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time, turns 75 this month. Though best known as a '70s folk-pop musician, Mitchell's jazz influences run deep: she's collaborated with the likes of Jaco Pastorius, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny and, most notably, Charles Mingus. Jazz singers love interpreting Joni Mitchell material because of this jazz influence - the innately singable melodies, the deeply colored harmonies, the poetic lyrics.

To understand just how beloved Mitchell is among jazz singers, here's a quick (unofficial and incomplete) list of those who've recorded Mitchell songs: Karrin Allyson, Becca Stevens, Cheryl Bentyne, Theo Bleckmann, Ann Hampton Callaway, Fay Claasen, Holly Cole, Denise Donatelli, Michael Feinstein, Melody Gardot, Sara Gazarek, Diana Krall, Karin Krog, Amy London, Jane Monheit, Judy Niemack, John Proulx, Diane Reeves, Janis Siegel, Bria Skonberg, Luciana Souza, Cassandra Wilson and Andrea Wolper. Songbook composers aside, is there another popular songwriter so well represented in vocal jazz?

Rhode Island-based Debra Mann, who credits Mitchell's work as the inspiration for her own career in jazz, is the most recent singer to launch a Mitchell tribute disc. The album, Full Circle: The Music of Joni Mitchell (Whaling City Sound) tackles a dozen of Mitchell's better-known tunes ("Circle Game", "Big Yellow Taxi", "A Case Of You"); Mann's fresh arrangements and expert phrasing provide a new context for the material, even as the singer references Mitchell's own unique vocal sound. With this album Mann joins the ranks of singers offering compelling, definitive interpretations of The Mitchell Songbook.

Madeleine Peyroux, who performed Mitchell's classic "River" on her charting album Half The Perfect World (Rounder), again joins with long-time producer Larry Klein (Mitchell's former husband, bassist and producer), on her celebrated new release Anthem (Decca). Like Mitchell, Peyroux wields the pen like a scalpel in dissecting the human psyche; each of the 10 originals on the disc, co-written with her impressive rhythm section, speak of both personal and societal loss - and offer a remedy. The surprisingly upbeat "All My Heroes" finds redemption in the failings of our lauded artists. The slow blues "The Ghosts of Tomorrow" contains a hint of hope despite the litany of ills on review. And Peyroux, on her cool version of the title cut - a call to greater social awareness by the late Leonard Cohen - impresses with her restrained delivery. Sometimes the softest voice reverberates the loudest.

Singer CeĢcile McLorin Salvant hasn't recorded a Joni Mitchell song, but in interviews she cites the singer/songwriter's influence on her musicianship and she did perform Mitchell's "All I Want" with pianist Fred Hersch in performance. And like Mitchell, Salvant is an expressionistic painter of considerable ability who lends her visual artistry to her album covers. Beyond this, Salvant brings a depth of feeling to her work recalling Mitchell's own. On her new release, The Window (Mack Avenue), for example, Salvant reaches deep into her gut in her renderings of Leonard Bernstein's "Somewhere" and Al Alberts' "Tell Me Why". She misses nary a step on this unabashedly open and moving album, recorded live at Village Vanguard with piano (Sullivan Fortner) only.

Also on this record Salvant covers "The Peacocks", the haunting tune by Jimmy Rowles with lyrics added later by British singer Norma Winstone (who recorded Mitchell's "Two Grey Rooms" on her 2014 album for Basho Records, Westerly). Winstone has her own 2018 release, Descansado: Songs for Films (ECM), a gorgeous assemblage of soundtrack themes from classic films, many with new lyrics by Winstone. Besides the title cut, Winstone contributes lyrics to the themes from Il Postino, Henry V and Taxi Driver. A masterful achievement.

More celebration: jazz child and NEA Jazz Master Sheila Jordan shares a birthday month with Mitchell. Jordan kicks off her 90th year with the Steve Kuhn Trio at Blue Note (Nov. 26th).

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