Still searching in Jazzland

by Dennis Harvey
Michigan Daily
December 11, 1980

Five years ago, The Hissing of the Summer Lawns [sic] heralded a new direction for Joni Mitchell, and to most critics and fans it looked like a misstep. Ambitious, lurchingly experimental, unfocused, definitely trying to get at something but vaguely unpleasant in the attempt, Hissing was an intellectual outsider's probing reach for jazz - a query and an appreciation, awfully serious, mysteriously but very noticeably lacking the intuitive grasp of the genre that could have removed its strain. Joni didn't give up after that first stumbling probe, abandoning the delicate reflection of her earlier folk-based music for more curiously distanced, intelligent explorations into jazz as musical form, myth and mystery. Through four albums, chilly critical an dwindling public response, she's stayed interesting - even noble - on her constant "safaris to the heart of all that jazz." But she remains outside looking in - a very smart white lady trying too studiously, too abstractly, for something that continues to elude her.

SHADOWS AND LIGHT, her two-album live set, condenses Chapter One of jazzy Joni just as Miles of Aisles in 1974 provided the last (albeit uneven) word on Joni as an acoustic observer before the complex pop bridge of Court and Spark. As a result it has a thematic charge, a sense of wholeness, that none of her post-'74 albums (possibly excepting Hejira) have had. The clutter of studio effects, all desperately trying to evoke some lost chord of primitivism, is gone, and the relative relaxation of the stage show relieves the material somewhat. The songs still smack of arty pretentiousness at times, but the live setting and the general tautness of her current band help to deflate the rhetoric.

NOT COMPLETELY, though. The ominous rumble of Joni's jazz sound keeps things all too earthbound, alas, still shackled to the struggle to be something when you just want it all to take off. Shadow and Light [sic] works better than any of Mitchell's other jazz experiments - in other words, the taste of vague failure goes down more easily than ever before.

As a lyricist, Joni has become steadily more impressionistic and playful, if less compelling. In fact, it's all too easy to ignore what she's saying most of the time now, though the subtlety and visual charge of her imagery is still intriguing on further scrutiny. She'll probably never be as emotionally direct as she was during the golden period of Blue and For the Roses articulateness is now directed toward being something of a jazz historian, with some traces of the old reflectiveness. She recycles and tries to reinterpret the mythos of urban glamour in 1940's visions of the city's exotic underside ("Edith and the Kingpin") and the musicians she worships ("Goodbye Porkpie Hat," "Furry Sings the Blues" and "God Must Be a Boogie Man," all off the failed Mingus collaboration). These are, usually, her least appealling (and now most common) compositions, interesting on one level as rambling musical explorations but uninteresting as songs.

FEW OF MITCHELL'S jazz songs really stand out from the others lyrically or musically, and that's a major problem - "Coyote" is the only one that's won any kind of wide recognition, and typically, that's the only song here to get more than a fairly subdued audience response. "Hejira," with its slowly mounting musical tension (which doesn't really go anywhere) and the ear-ballad "Amelia" don't really come together the way Joni's folk pieces used to, but they come close enough. Joni's voice has changed a lot since her folk days, too - once lithe and wide-eyed, skittering around the upper registers, she's now a harder-edged, sometimes harsh stylist, hitting the right inflections with cool precision. But she's still no real jazz vocalist; that voice is still too light, too depthless. Although it works better at the playfulness of near-skat (especially on Court and Spark's "Twisted"), the incisiveness can get too metallic, as it does here on The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines. She probably couldn't sound convincing on her folk songs anymore; it's definitely the wrong time for the one folk revival here, no less than "Woodstock" (dredged up for the encore, and still in search of a definitive version), but her delivery - low, cool, methodical - calculatedly drains whatever life there is left in it.

There are, still, moments of real success here. "In France They Kiss on Main Street" loses a few flushes that it had on Hissing of the Summer Lawns [sic], but it remains a rhapsodic surrender to romantic conversation, a rush of ecstatic images, and Mitchell's phrasing grabs its every possibility. "Shadows and Light," a murky farewell mass on the same album, has developed enough grandeur to be acceptable as a sort of before-and-after anthem - by now, its lyrics seem like a dignified answer of self-defense toward the "critics of all expression" Mitchell has dealt with since Hissing's bewildered reception.

The Persuasions' guest spot is a bit too conspicuous on that reprise, but perfect on "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" turned into a doo-wop riot - it's more fun than anything else on the set, and fun is what Mitchell has desperately needed in most of her jazz experimenting.

Joni Mitchell hasn't gone stale or just faded away - how many other circa-1971 folkies could claim that? - and her efforts to grow and change, to get it right (even if she never goes) remains admirable. I'll always like her for what she has done and what she, conceivably, could do in the future, though hard as I try, I can't really like the music she's creating now. Shadows and Light, more than any of her other jazz works, can be appreciated, but it's still only halfway to being really enjoyable.

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