Joni Mitchell made an unscheduled guest appearance at an all-star concert honoring her 1970s "jazz period" in New York's Central Park on Thursday (July 1). She took the stage with Chaka Khan, Duncan Sheik, Joe Jackson, Eric Andersen, Jane Siberry, Toshi Reagon, PM Dawn, Ravi Coltrane, and many others for the closing number, "Help Me."
Producer Danny Kapilian described the event, Joni's Jazz, as "not a tribute concert in any real way. This is a celebration of a very specific period of music in Joni Mitchell's career."
Presented as a part of Central Park's SummerStage outdoor concert series, it was threatened by the hissing of Central Park lawns -- a steady rain that ceased just minutes before the concert's start.
Backed by a group that included noted jazz and rock artists Vernon Reid, Don Byron, Graham Haynes, and Minu Cinelu, the concert drew material from Mitchell's 1974-79 albums Court and Spark, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Hejira, Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, and Mingus.
Mitchell, a Canadian, was the ideal honoree for a concert on July 1, which is also Canada Day. Before an audience waving small Canadian flags, Consul General of Canada Michael Phillips thanked New York City Parks Commissioner Henry Stern for "for not paving paradise and putting up a parking lot" -- to the general groans of the audience.
The evening's biggest cheers went up for the performances of sturdy-voiced women Khan, Reagon, Erin Hamilton, and Joy Askew, the latter of whom performed a show-stopping duet with Jackson of "Down to You." (With a slyly-inserted segment from Mitchell's "Case of You," from her jazz-period live set Miles of Aisles.)
Anderson, perhaps Mitchell's only contemporary on the bill, offered an idiosyncratic reading of "Just Like This Train," and PM Dawn, after their clever reggae version of "Free Man in Paris," created a rap set to a sample from Mingus. "The Same Situation" became a Coltrane instrumental, and "Raised on Robbery" morphed into a bouncy ska number sung by Sheryl Marshall.
The second half of the show was an in-sequence performance of the Hejira album, highlighted by funky versions of "Black Crow" and "Hejira" (by Reagon and Khan, respectively), as well as "Furry Sings the Blues" by Andersen, with Byron's bass clarinet accompaniment.
The evening's only non-Mitchell song was the encore of the Lambert, Hendricks & Ross tune "Twisted," covered by Mitchell on Court and Spark. Original LH&R members Jon Hendricks and Annie Ross performed the song, which seemed to induce more audience members to sing along than any of Mitchell's tunes.
Mitchell was coaxed onstage for the closing number "Help Me." Cigarette in hand, she said, "I'm really speechless. I can't begin to describe the way I feel... I'll remember this all my life -- all my long life."
With the stage crowded by all participating artists, Mitchell seemed reluctant to take the lead vocal away from Chaka Khan, who prompted her with, "Joni, sing. Sing, girl." Finally, Mitchell offered a few choruses of ethereal, wordless vocal lines to a swaying crowd that could not have adored her more.