The New Joni Mitchell; The Songbird of Woodstock soars into Jazz
"Audiences have been great," said singer Joni Mitchell only minutes after she had finished a sold out concert at Merriweather Post Pavilion. "I tell you the letters I get are very encouraging. People say, 'We weren't with you three years ago, but now we're behind you."
She no longer is the girlish Joni Mitchell with long, straight blond hair and bangs, a folk heroine of sorts, composer of a generation's theme song, "Woodstock," and spinner of bittersweet tales about herself.
She rose to fame with that Woodstock generation, singing folk songs and ballads with clever lyrics, sometimes with a twist of rock 'n' roll.
But then she went from being a simple acoustic guitar soloist to a singer guitarist with a full band. She experimented with some jazz on her album 'The Hissing of Summer Lawns.' She added deep whining electric bass on a later album, 'Hejira.' The changes alienated some fans, intrigued some new ones.
But she survived those changes and the changes in the musical tastes of the70s.
Now, just a few months after the release of her most dramatically different album, 'Mingus,' which is all jazz, she is in the middle of a six week 25-city tour - after a three year hiatus. Certainly at the Merriweather Post Pavilion Wednesday and Thursday (the latter date sold-out), the crowds were enthusiastic.
Minutes after Thursday night's encore, a stunning, soulful, even mournful version of "Woodstock," she was guided off stage and into a waiting silver limousine, to be taken to Baltimore/Washington International Airport and her private Lear jet.
She settles into the back of the car cross-legged, and fluffs out her wavy shoulder-length hair, the curls now wilted in the humidity. "During 'Raised on Robbery' I felt like that clambake we had for dinner last night," she says chuckling.
At 35, the onstage Joni Mitchell has shed her once tentative, fawn-eyed look. It's been replaced by a mellow confidence. Years have softened the angularity of her face. The smile is more sensual. The eyes are a little tired. But the cheekbones, perfectly high and rounded, remain a trademark.
Lean, she wore an orange blouse and black silk pants with black satin high heeled sandals. "I'm a clothes horse," she said, looking down. "I love fashion. The whole hippie thing was a relief in a way - we were all so fresh scrubbed and in jeans. I've always enjoyed clothes. Nut there was an inhibiting time, peer pressure. You couldn't dress up. Well, I succumbed to some of that. If anything I'm coming out now."
Mithcell's 'Mingus' album combines her lyrics and the music of the great jazz bassist Charles Mingus, sho died of Lou Gehrig's disease. Mitchell, at Mingus' request, met with him several times and wrote words to the music.
She spoke almost reverentially of Mingus during the concert. One of her favourite pieces was written for him, a funny song based on part of God Must Be a Boogie Man, Mingus' autobiography.
For her, the collaboration was a meeting of minds. Others feared the worst.
"Well, just the notion of a folksinger flirting with jazz is seen as presumptuous," she said, laughing ruefully, "rather than someone enthusiastically exploring her potential."
"Now criticism is lightening up. Even the reviews say that - that maybe some of the work done a few years ago was taken too harshly. My engineer and I would work on a project, we'd say, 'Oh, they just don't understand what this is.' Now they do."
She says her audience is "very diverse. Some people like one period and don't like another. After the last two albums I have a small black audience, I have a small jazz audience."
"The tour is a pretty good mixture, mostly from the last five albums," she explained. She opened with "Big Yellow Taxi," but avoided some of the other old favourites. "I'm not looking forward to singing 'Help Me' or 'Both Sides, Now'" she said. Especially 'Both Sides, Now.'
"I've heard it too often in supermarkets and elevators. I guess my first reaction when I hear it is a rush of pride. It's getting universal - almost to the 'happy Birthday' stage. But I'm also critical of it when I hear it. They've usually reduced it to the lowest common denominator."
Mitchell explained her changes in music as natural: "Most people in the business find a formula and stick to it. I would find that uninteresting."
Her current tout is about half finished. "I just felt like going out," she said with a shrug and a giggle. "I think after this is over I'll go someplace with nice, blue salt water. I'll take a little vacation."
She as a house in Los Angeles and a loft in New York. For the past two years, she said, she has been living with Don Alias, her percussionist on the tour. Alias is a tall, well-built man with a warm smile who sits quietly in the back of the limousine with her.
"We've talked about getting married," she said. "I don't know. Kids? I don't know about that either."
She smiled softly. "I'm really strong as far as child-bearing goes. But it's a difficult time to bring kids into the world." Mitchell was born in Alberta Canada, and raised in Saskatoon, Seskatchewan. She went off to the Alberta College of Art in Calgary for one year, but started singing folk music in coffee houses, and pursued music. She still paints, and some of her albums display her artwork.
"I go on jags," she said. "When I was in a writing block during Mingus I painted 14 canvases. Two are on the album cover. Sometimes I carry a sketch book. And I've been doing some canvases in my New York loft. I'm always doing some extracurricular art project."
She also knits, and she proudly pulled out a simple, neatly done multicoloured sweater. "Every time I get on a plane now, I take along a bag of coloured yarns. I'm making a sweater for Don now."
Mitchell said she enjoys working with the band touring with her - Alias, noted bassist Jaco Pastorius, Pat Metheny on guitar, Lyle Mays on keyboard, Michael Brecker on saxophone. "Herbie Hancock had wanted to do it," she said, referring to the jazz pianist who alos recorded with her on Mingus, "but he had his own projects that he had to do."
Her settled feeling about the band is born out of repeated troubles in coordinating her own style with three of the other musicians with whom she has played.
"On this tour I feel like more of a band musician," she said. "I feel like an integral part of the band. They're great musicians and coincidentally, great jazz musicians. But I don't think of our music in terms of jazz or rock or fusion, I just think in terms of 'I wanna hire some musicians to do some work and play some music.'"
Mitchell said she sees her music becoming more rhythmic. "A lot of the older stuff we did tonight was more rhythmic. I would like to go in a more rhythmic direction….I see myself going toward epic poems. 'Song for Sharon' was an epic. I tend to think now in longer thoughts. 'Amelia' was an epic too.
"Musically, I don't know where I'm going. I've flirted with pop classical. Gershwin was kind of my hero in that - the way he expanded into rhapsodies, but in a pop music context. 'Ludwig's Tune' and 'Down to You are like that - pushing the strength of the song into even longer pieces. Some of those songs run to ten minutes long."
Outside the limousine, at the airport, a soft rain began to fall. Mitchell pulled on her shoes. "I'll know what my next album is as soon as it gets written. It might be acoustic guitar. It might be folk. I never know in advance."
She collected her jacket, knitted sweater and overstuffed purse, and headed for her airplane.
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