It was only a matter of time before Joni Mitchell, whose achievements as a pop-jazz innovator approach her achievements as a singer-songwriter, cut a standards album. On the concert trail, she has tested those waters with "Stormy Weather" and "Comes Love," once a vehicle for Billie Holiday. She also contributed readings of "Summertime" and "The Man I Love" to jazz pianist Herbie Hancock's genre-hopping disc, "Gershwin's World" (1998). Because her Gershwin interpretations strained for pained, Holiday-esque expression, you could have feared the worst in approaching "Both Sides Now" (Reprise). The title track and another early folk-rock Mitchell favorite, "A Case of You," is surrounded by mostly pre-rock classics. But the album, available today in a limited-edition box set containing three of her lithographs (it retails at $49.98; the regular CD will be released March 21), transcends its influences. It's as convincing as anything she has done.
Luxuriating in West Coast arranger Vince Mendoza's stirring orchestrations, the 56-year-old Mitchell brings a husky, powerfully laid back authority to songs associated with the likes of Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Etta James-and even while misfiring with "Stormy Weather," the singer makes an interesting pass at Lena Horne.
Joni wouldn't be Joni if she weren't pitching a high concept. In ordering the songs to trace the arc of a love affair, she told Billboard magazine, "Both Sides Now" is designed as "a commentary on romantic love in the 20th century."
Those expecting any champagne bubbles are in for a letdown. Though she projects a sexy, carefree maturity on "Comes Love" and "I Wish I Were in Love Again," thriving as always in a cool, swinging vein, even the most upbeat songs are streaked with foreboding. On "You're My Thrill," the album's stunning opener, heartbreak is no more than an inflection away from hope.
The two Mitchell oldies are out of their element here. Decking out "I could drink a case of you" in strings is like outfitting a flower child in Dior. Still, singing the songs with a reflective intensity, she muscles her way past their '60s-collegiate sensibility to spill pressing middle-age truths.
Recorded in London in settings ranging from a big band to a 71-piece orchestra, "Both Sides Now" features pop-tinged soprano saxophone solos by Wayne Shorter (a longtime crony of Mitchell's), and contributions by Hancock and trumpeter Mark Isham. The first in a trilogy planned by Mitchell and her co-producer (and ex-husband) Larry Klein, the disc will be followed by a symphonic treatment of her music and reportedly a holiday album including several "something bad always happens to me on Christmas" songs.
Rating: *** ½