Only a true fan could properly deliver a fitting tribute to living legend, Joni Mitchell. Kiki Ebsen just may be that fan. An established pop and jazz singer/songwriter in her own right, Ebsen's about to officially launch her tribute tour, the Joni Mitchell ProjectTM, in two sets starting 8 p.m. Friday at the warm, intimate, and inviting Vitello's Upstairs (The E-Spot) in Studio City, California.
Ebsen's touring project features acclaimed musicians who are all in love with Mitchell's music, done in the jazz/folk style of her "Shadows And Light" live concert" from the 1979 Mingus Tour.
For the Vitello's debut, guitarists Grant Geissman (Chuck Mangione's "Feels So Good," "Two And A Half Men" theme song), and Terry Wollman (co-producer of Melissa Manchester's first studio album in almost a decade), bassist Steven Lawrence, and longtime drummer Matt Starr join Ebsen on a journey through Mitchell's popular and compelling tracks from 1968-1976 - nine albums' worth of memories, revived. The tracks include "Help Me," "River," "In France They Kiss On Main Street," "Two Grey Rooms," and "Twisted."
The daughter of famous actor and Broadway hoofer, the late Buddy Ebsen ("The Beverly Hillbillies," "Barnaby Jones," "Breakfast At Tiffany's," "Born To Dance"), Kiki grew up enchanted by Mitchell's music since first listening to the 1968 album, Song To A Seagull.
The moment a young Ebsen, in her preteens, locked onto "Michael From Mountains" from that album, she knew she wanted to pursue the same singer-songwriter path.
"Joni Mitchell has influenced my career in a way that no other singer-songwriter ever could. My experience is not unique; ask any touring musician who they most admire among singer-songwriters. Invariably, 'Joni Mitchell' is their answer," Ebsen said in a Sept. 14 press release from TCV Media. "Joni Mitchell is a brave and fearless explorer of the heart and soul. Her music continues to inspire others. My lifelong appreciation of her creative gifts and performing talents was the impetus for creating my Joni Mitchell Project."
To call Mitchell a folk star from the 1970s isn't enough. Considered one of the most influential singer/songwriters of her and subsequent generations, the former Canadian busker-turned-all-genre phenomenon is truly an original voice that stands the test of time.
Her voice and her poetry defy the standard script, seducing the listener of any genre into a rabbit hole where matter and means dissipate in favor of the feeling and the vibe of a lost, forgotten room of delicate, antique treasures. Jazz musicians of note favor her almost above all others as the Compass North for their inspirational covers and, quite often, their own studied, sometimes disturbed, songwriting.
Ebsen's own voice is as unconventional yet alluring as Mitchell's. On her first fully realized jazz album Scarecrow Sessions, the 2014 release for her late father Buddy, she completely turns the standards and the Great American Songbook around with hushed, almost traumatized phrasing that leaves a lingering feeling of being haunted.
A singer, songwriter, and album producer too, Ebsen also shares artistry in common with Mitchell. Both have been known to accompany their recorded music with personalized artwork. Ebsen's first album, Red , and follow-up, Love Loud , both showcase her painting.
AXS interviewed Kiki Ebsen yesterday about her Joni Mitchell Music Project - beyond the press release and into the heart of the tribute.
AXS: You've been causing quite a stir with your Joni Mitchell Music Project. Joni Mitchell's no joke. She's an icon with not the easiest discography to perform. What emotions did you go through before deciding you were ready to tackle such an ambitious, challenging project?
Kiki Ebsen: You are correct. Joni Mitchell is no joke! The more that I absorb about her, the more I uncover the complexities surrounding her and her art. She is a complete, one-of-a-kind artist - driven by passion, love, desire, pain, joy, and intensity of feeling for life's circumstance, reacting in the moment with no apologies. Of course, she was fueled by her genius talent.
I've been a fan of Joni's since my older sister Bonnie thrust her debut record in my 10-year-old face and said, "You have to listen to this!"
I covered a Woodstock [show] a few years back and added a few more Joni songs to my set over the last few years, but for some reason on January first of this year, I woke up and said, "I want to do an all-Joni show" now. I felt an intense desire to explore her music catalog and invite my like-minded friends to join me on the journey.
Usually, the harder and more impossible a project seems, the more I dive into it. I knew that her music would challenge me in every way, musically, emotionally.
I was recovering from a badly broken heart while learning, "Case of You." I had to listen to it about 30 times before I could stop crying, then I could actually learn the song [laughs], and don't get me started on the orchestral versions of her songs with Vince Mendoza. They are the most compelling renditions of any song that I've ever heard. My thought was, "This music needs to be performed," not just listened to. It's a master class for any singer/songwriter/musician who is serious about the craft.
AXS: You have your own unique style as well, especially in jazz. What do you uniquely bring to Joni Mitchell's music that honors her legacy while adding your own personality to the mix?
KE: I treat each song as if it was mine. I embrace it: The beauty of the imagery, the challenge of the melody, the phrasing of the lyric, the unique rhythms. I pour my life experience into it.
I'm no stranger to love lost or to a heart that has suffered, relationships that have gone wrong. I have experienced a deep love that cannot exist in this atmosphere. I have longed for people and situations so badly I thought I might perish for the pain of it all. Yet through it all, I have hung onto much hope and have been enlightened through my songwriting. My relationships today thrive as a result. My desire is to uplift, heal, and touch people in positive ways.
Joni's music is extraordinary. I love the way her voice sails, lifts, floats, and dives like a feather in the sky. The music is so rewarding, It takes some work, but when we nail a song down, the band members are giddy, because it's just so fun to play.
We are talking "A" players, Grant Geissman and Terry Wollman among others. That's what I envision: Like-minded pro players paying homage to an icon, bringing their unique talent to the stage and really performing this in real time - not to sound like the record; rather, sound like a music group that's really getting off on the experience with the audience.
AXS: The tribute project seems especially poignant since Mitchell's aneurysm last year and slow recovery (she attended a Chick Corea concert at L.A.'s Catalina Bar and Grill Aug. 20). What does performing this tribute mean to you, as a longtime fan?
KE: Something drove me to create this project earlier this year. It was when it was met with such an amazing response by musicians and fans alike that I knew I was onto something. What it means to me is that Joni Mitchell's music is as vibrant today as it was yesterday. It begs to be performed. There are so many songs and eras to choose from. As a performer, I find it an amazing opportunity to dig in deep to my craft, practice, and reach new skill levels. It's the upper echelon of jazz meets singer/songwriter.
AXS: You've already performed your Joni Mitchell tribute concert several times this year. When did you first premier it and what was the response?
KE: Our first offering was in January of this year and people were completely floored! They loved it. More recently at a performance at the Festival of Arts in Laguna, a woman came up to me and said that she was healed by hearing Joni's tunes again. It brought back such great memories for her.
AXS: What makes the upcoming concert at Vitellio's so special, is this an official launch of a broader tour?
KE: It's the first official performance of "The Joni Mitchell Project™." This band is very special to me and has really put the time, passion, and love into each song, creating parts that intertwine effortlessly supporting the vocal. I am completely at ease with each one of the band members and love them dearly.
AXS: What do you have planned after Vitellio's, a record maybe?
KE: A record...hmmm....what a great idea [smiles]. Actually at rehearsal, the other day, we finished playing "Both Sides Now" and our bass player said, "Someone shoulda hit 'record!'" I think a record is in the cards, along with many more performances. Joni's music is just inspiring in every way.
Vitello's Upstairs is located on 4349 Tujunga Ave. in Studio City, California. Tickets: $20. Information: (818) 769-0905.
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