COURTING, SPARKING, REVIVING: Suddenly, everything is coming up Joni, and among the vast and expanding panorama of Joni lovers, all seems right with the world for a moment. That said, the prevailing theme on Shine, Joni Mitchells first album of new material in a decade, is that far too little is right with the world. Over the course of 10 songs, Mitchell uses her powers of poetry and musical invention to take on a litany of the ills before us, such as ecological angst, materialism, religious extremism, and the secular extremism of corporate greed (forget for the moment that the album comes to us via Hear Music, the McStarbux imprint).
If that sounds like a recipe for a Debby Downer kind of encounter, think again. As she has in her best music over the years, Mitchell seduces us with oblique lyricism in the melodic department, and melodious charms in the lyric department. Few artists so deftly balance the luminous and the edgy as this enlightened Canadian.
In a sense, Shine is a reconsideration, decades of wisdom later, of her boppy Big Yellow Taxi, with its proto-eco mantra you paved paradise and put up a parking lot. She offers a more sober version of that tune, called Big Yellow Taxi (2007), and pursues the sentiment more deeply and darkly on the haunting If I Had a Heart (with its crypto-eco mantra were making this Earth a funeral pyre) and Bad Dreams, on which she praises the power of the wake-up call.
Musically, Mitchell keeps it cool and lean, doing much of the instrumental work herself, including some loveably quirky electronic tracks. Aiding the process are saxist Bob Shepard (a star of the recent Solvang Jazz Festival) and the ambience-meister, pedal steel player Greg Liesz. An album that closes with the hopeful If, opens with a jazz-folk-colored instrumental, One Week Last Summer, reminding us of Mitchells innate jazz connection in her chords, note choices, phrasing, and just plain attitude.
Mitchells jazz undercurrent is the subject of Herbie Hancocks glorious new Joni tribute project, River (Verve). Hancock, who brings the music to Campbell Hall on Sunday (with Sonya Kitchell doing vocal honors) has paid ultimate respect to his subject, while making his best album since his Gershwin tribute. He captures the reflective character and subtle, nonconformist genius of her music from his cool take on Court and Spark onward.
Singers show up, including Norah Jones, Tina Turner, Corinne Bailey Rae, and Joni herself, but the greatest singer is saxophonist Wayne Shorter, a frequent collaborator and kindred spirit of Mitchells, and for good reason. When Hancock steps outside the Mitchell songbook for a fresh spin on Shorters acoustic-Miles Davis-era classic Nefertiti, poetic justice descends on our ears and hearts. Once again, all seems right and right-brained with the world. At least for the moment.
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