Friday, November 7, 2008

Morning Morgantown (Joni Mitchell)

Happy Birthday, Joni!

A 65th Birthday Tribute to Joni Mitchell
by Jim Fusilli, Wall Street Journal, November 4, 2008

Joni Mitchell turns 65 years old on Friday. As a milestone, reaching that age doesn't mean what it once did, but any opportunity to celebrate Ms. Mitchell and her work is worth seizing. Gifted and fearless, she remains among the finest singer-songwriters of the rock era, a title that doesn't quite accommodate the breadth of music and the audacity of her career. As David Crosby told me when I called him last week, "In a hundred years, when they ask who was the greatest songwriter of the era, it's got to be her or Dylan. I think it's her. And she's a better musician than Bob."

Mr. Crosby produced Ms. Mitchell's first album, "Song to a Seagull" (Reprise), which was released in 1968. Though she had a democratic approach to music, enjoying Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Edith Piaf and the scat-singing trio Lambert Hendricks and Ross, among others, she developed her skills playing folk in coffeehouses in western Canada, Toronto, Detroit and New York's Greenwich Village. On "Song to a Seagull," she's presented as fully formed -- a thrilling folk singer and gifted songwriter.

"It was the quality of her songs," Mr. Crosby said when I asked him what he found appealing about young Ms. Mitchell. "And the singing, and the instrumental ability. She was beautiful and intriguing, but the songs were so good." Her early catalog was so strong that she chose to omit from her debut album three of her compositions that had already been recorded by a variety of other singers -- "Both Sides Now," "The Circle Game" and "Urge for Going."

Her third album, which followed her Grammy-winning second album, "Clouds," contained contributions from Mr. Crosby and his colleagues Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young, who recorded her song "Woodstock." But "Ladies of the Canyon" (1970) also featured jazz musicians Jim Horn, Paul Horn and Milt Holland. Its successor "Blue" (1971) found her using colors that recall jazz. Miles Davis's music was an influence, particularly his album "Nefertiti," which contained compositions by his band members Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock.

"I don't remember if she was into jazz," Mr. Crosby told me. "But she was going deeper in her sound. By the time she did 'Blue,' she was past me and rushing toward the horizon."

To expand her harmonic palette, she used alternate tunings on her guitar, which allow easier access to augmented chords and notes in unexpected combinations. Many folk singers did, but, according to Mr. Crosby, "she and the late Michael Hedges were the most advanced tuning specialists I knew. It was like she was saying, 'I want dense, stranger chords.'"

"Blue" is about as raw and direct as confessional singing and songwriter gets. Over music that's sparse and penetrating, Ms. Mitchell lays bare her inner conflicts. Love is a temporary tonic. Some loss of self is inevitable. The songs aren't only about romantic love. For years, Ms. Mitchell concealed that "Little Green" was about the daughter she gave up for adoption.

For her next two albums, she edged toward a kind of light jazz, giving Tom Scott's saxophone a prominent place in her music. "Court & Spark," released in 1974, became her biggest commercial success. The album ends with Ms. Mitchell interpreting Lambert, Hendricks & Ross's "Twisted."

It's overly simplistic to say that Ms. Mitchell's move toward jazz was inevitable or calculated. She had established her own musical vocabulary by this time, and "Court & Spark" is a natural successor to her earlier work, with Ms. Mitchell's piano, guitar and voice as its centerpiece. There's a distance between singer and lyrical subject on "Court & Spark," but bore past the jazzy pop arrangements and you'll find Ms. Mitchell yearning for new means of expression as she continues to reveal herself.

In 1975, Ms. Mitchell entered a creative period that is at the heart of what distinguishes her from other talented singer-songwriters of the era. With "The Hissing of Summer Lawns," she forged a seamless marriage of jazz, folk and rock based on the diversity of her musical palette. With "Hejira," issued a year later, she made an album for the ages. Thematically, it's a contemplation of restlessness, of travel in pursuit of some unknown. Ms. Mitchell's curiously tuned guitar is its musical heart, but her new sidekick, bassist Jaco Pastorius, gives several songs a persistent sense of rootlessness. He became a dominating presence in Ms. Mitchell's band, which grew to include saxophonist Wayne Shorter, guitarist Pat Metheny, percussionist Don Alias, among others.

Though he had corresponded with Ms. Mitchell for several years, Mr. Shorter was recruited in 1976 by Mr. Pastorius, who was killed in 1987. "I listened to her folk stuff," Mr. Shorter told me when I called him at his home in West Hollywood, Calif., "but I was really interested when she started to incorporate a wider range of musical content and expression. Her music was becoming more global."

Mr. Shorter performed on Ms. Mitchell's experimental recording "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter," which including a 16-minute orchestral piece "Paprika Plains," and on "Mingus," her 1979 collaboration with Charles Mingus in which she wrote lyrics to and sings four of his compositions as well as several of her own inspired by the bassist and composer. "Mingus" links to Ms. Mitchell's past only through its quality, daring and integrity. The guitar is a percussion instrument, wolves howl, Mr. Shorter plays free, and Ms. Mitchell's singing is pure from-the-soul jazz. Though you can listen to the album alongside "Blue" and see it as part of a continuum, with "Mingus" it is as if she blew out the walls of the house in which her music lived.

Mr. Shorter admired the boldness of her vision. "She was willing to stand up and not be a victim of her success, and not be subservient to the 'fan club' syndrome," he said. "You know, people would say to her: 'How dare you play a minor second.' She faced the tide of what the record companies expected of someone who had folk hits and wrote 'Woodstock.'"

"She didn't hide," Mr. Shorter added. "Instead of doing music by rote, she created a way of storytelling that used certain colorings. She was a fighter."

You'd be forgiven if you thought Ms. Mitchell was on hiatus between now and then, emerging only to work with Mr. Hancock on his 2007 award-winning album "River: the Joni Letters," in which he places her in a pantheon that includes Davis and Duke Ellington. But Ms. Mitchell has recorded seven albums of new material since "Mingus." Many are quite good and, in their own way, as bold and experimental as her earlier work. But the industry has changed, and marketing new, inventive music by serious artists from the '60s and '70s seems an impossible task.

I asked Mr. Crosby what he thought of "Shine," released last year, her first new album in almost a decade. "I thought it was terrific," he said. "I was upset that she wasn't recording more. I told her so. But the industry has never known what to do with her. It's not an easy world for someone that sophisticated."

Mr. Fusilli is the Journal's rock and pop music critic. Email him at

SONG: Morning Morgantown by Joni Mitchell

BOOK: The Music of Joni Mitchell by Lloyd Whitesell

POEM: A Birthday by Christina Rossetti

My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a water'd shoot;
My heart is like an apple-tree
Whose boughs are bent with thick-set fruit;
My heart is like a rainbow shell
That paddles in a halcyon sea;
My heart is gladder than all these,
Because my love is come to me.

Raise me a daïs of silk and down;
Hang it with vair and purple dyes;
Carve it in doves and pomegranates,
And peacocks with a hundred eyes;
Work it in gold and silver grapes,
In leaves and silver fleurs-de-lys;
Because the birthday of my life
Is come, my love is come to me.

QUOTE: "You could write a song about some kind of emotional problem you are having, but it would not be a good song, in my eyes, until it went through a period of sensitivity to a moment of clarity. Without that moment of clarity to contribute to the song, it's just complaining." ~ Joni Mitchell

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