Speaking with Joni Mitchell's former collaborators provide fascinating insights into their time working with her and into the process of how she herself worked. Sadly, many of those collaborators are leaving us at an alarming rate: Henry Lewy, John Guerin, Don Alias, Jaco Pastorius and Michael Brecker. I had the pleasure of communicating with Mike Gibbs recently. Mike is a renowned jazz composer and orchestrator, originally from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe.) Mike was brought in, on the recommendation of bassist Jaco Pastorius, to add orchestration to Joni's 1977 masterpiece, Paprika Plains, which formed the entirety of side two on the double LP set Don Juan's Reckless Daughter. Paprika Plains was an ambitious work in three movements, with a 16' 21" running time. For a musician from the Prog Rock school at that time this might have been unremarkable, but for a songwriter still awkwardly associated with folk music in the minds of some fans and critics alike, this was startling. In fact, almost nothing remained of Joni Mitchell's distant folk roots by this time: no chordal movements, lyrical patterns or rhythmic settings. A three act play, with the Canadian prairie as its scene and the life of its surviving First Nations as its primary subject, Paprika Plains remains a towering work, and Mike Gibbs' orchestration added hugely to its emotional scope and majesty, drawing from the cinematic poetry and the dreamlike abstraction of the tracks already laid down.
Here is a brief overview of the piece:
The first movement of Paprika Plains is in a recognizable song structure, though it is far from the stanzaic structures one associates with popular music. With just piano and voice, Joni establishes her lyrical themes, the world of the Canadian First Nations people with their deep connection to nature, the intense weather, the inhospitable land. Joni's observant eye, growing up amongst them in Saskatchewan, had given her an admiration for their nobility and connectedness to this land, "vast and bleak and God forsaken." Although the music is "through composed", employing no familiar repetition or refrains, it succeeds in its expository role, perfectly mirroring the formless land of its subject.
The second movement, entirely instrumental, and exhibiting the most advanced composition techniques of Joni's entire career, was where Mike Gibbs was most involved. The composition process began as several freely improvised piano excursions, growing out of a free consciousness technique Jaco Pastorius had introduced her to. These were subsequently edited together into about eight minutes of coherent but abstract music, at which point Gibbs was enlisted to sculpt his parts for full orchestra, extrapolating from both her dense modern harmony and her lyrical reach. Capturing a sense of 'vast and bleak and God forsaken' in orchestral parts required a sensitivity and mastery that Mike Gibbs was uniquely qualified for.
One of the technical problems encountered in the second movement, never resolved, was the piano itself, that was tuned and retuned over several days during the initial improvised excursions; once it was cut together this resulted in a piano track that appeared to drift in pitch from edit to edit, enough to cause Charles Mingus to remark upon hearing it "the strings are out of tune!" It was, in fact, the piano to blame, and Gibbs' orchestra players were ear-tuning to the opening passages of the piece and had to manage as best they could as it unfolded. They were not to know that the piano itself was wandering in pitch.
Such is the fascinating and sometimes maddening process of music recording....
The third movement is a jubilant one-chord jam showcasing Wayne Shorter's soprano sax and the extraordinary interplay of the John Guerin/Jaco Pastorius rhythm section.
Wikipedia describes Paprika Plains thus:
Most experimental of all is "Paprika Plains," a 16-minute song played on improvised piano and arranged with a full orchestra; it takes up all of Side 2. In it, Mitchell narrates a first-person description of a late-night gathering in a bar frequented by Indigenous peoples of Canada, touching on themes of hopelessness and alcoholism. At one point in the narrative, the narrator leaves the setting to watch the rain and enters into a dreamstate, and the lyrics - printed in the liner notes but not sung - become a mixture of references to innocent childhood memories, a nuclear explosion and an expressionless tribe gazing upon the dreamer. The narrator returns inside after the rain passes. In speaking to Anthony Fawcett about working on "Paprika Plains," Mitchell said:
"The Improvisational, the spontaneous aspect of this creative process - still as a poet - is to set words to the music, which is a hammer and chisel process. Sometimes it flows, but a lot of times it's blocked by concept. And if you're writing free consciousness - which I do once in a while just to remind myself that I can, you know, because I'm fitting little pieces of this puzzle together - the end result must flow as if it was spoken for the first time."
After some internet searching and exploratory emails, I was fortunate enough to make contact with Mike, now living in Spain, and ask him some questions pertaining to his brief time collaborating with Joni Mitchell on her magnum opus.
With questions pooled from JMDL members added to my own, Mike shared the following...
DB: Were you familiar with Joni Mitchell's music when you were contacted to arrange for her?
DB: You conducted the sessions; How did the sessions go and where were they recorded?
MG: The sessions were fine - done in NYC - I don't remember the studio though it should be listed on the album cover. Carly Simon stopped in to visit her buddy. I was familiar with most of the players from other dates I'd done.
DB: If you were already familiar with JM's earlier music were you surprised at the direction she was taking on DJRD; on Paprika Plains in particular?
MG: Yes, somewhat; though, as I understood things, it was Jaco who suggested to Joni that she use me - he had heard some orchestral music I had written - and I also understand that her inspiration to do this piano extemporization had come from something Jaco had shown her: some harmonic techniques which were "liberating." Apparently she improvised some thirty minutes which she edited down to this nine minute piano solo.
DB: The middle movement of PP is the most harmonically adventurous music she ever did. Was it up to you to transcribe her improvised piano performances? And did she ever get together with you to discuss what she wanted?
MG: It was up to me, but I had asked production folks if they could get a whizz kid in to do that, which they did.
We did get together, of course; not just Joni and me, but Henry too. I don't recall them saying very much about what they wanted. I was left to my own devices, though at the meeting I talked to Joni and Henry about looking for a sound that was "red hot" and suggestive of Plains, as in American flat land plains - perhaps sort of Aaron Copelan-ish. Joni loved that I didn't talk in technical musical terms and she said to Henry something like "this is the right guy," and off to work I went.
DB: Was she pleased with how the eventual track turned out?
MG: I think so. She was nervous at the session.
DB: Any interesting anecdotes you recall from those times?
MG: We had a great dinner at a Chinese restaurant after the session from which Joni nicked a (real) napkin as a souvenir!.
from Mark Scott:
I would be curious to know what Mike thought of Joni as a musician and composer. What was his critical response to her piano composition for Paprika Plains where-in, as she says she put it to Henry Lewy, she couldn't "hit a wrong note?"
If she did have significant input into what Mike did with the piece, what did he think of her choices and/or suggestions? What was his perception of her knowledge and talent?
MG: An odd question. Musician/Composer hints at your Beethovens or Brahms, where I see her as a Composer/Performer/Singer - a different animal altogether.
And as a Composer/Performer/Singer I always have and do regard her as extraordinarily creative. I'm aghast every time I hear her, at the intricacies of her compositional skills. Her words, for a start, demand hearing; it's impossible not to hear them.
This would take too long here but if you get to see the score, you can see several instances where her words supply me with orchestral, melodic and timbral choices.
Please tell Mike Gibbs that I love the strings that he added to Paprika Plains. As I recall, she had several improvisational piano parts, recorded at different times. She originally had a long story, some of which she cut out as the piece was formed. It was a real departure for her because of the orchestration and just the length of the piece. She must have trusted you as an artist because the orchestration is a big part of Paprika Plains.
How did all of the pieces get stitched together? Did she give you a lot of freedom or did she have something specific in mind? What direction did she give you? Was it given in a metaphorical or concrete fashion?
MG: Thanks so much for your kind words. For my answers see above for most of this.
JL: In the liner notes, it says that you conducted too. When you recorded it, were the piano parts already stitched, leaving holes for the orchestra?
MG: What you are hearing is an edited down nine minutes from a free extemporization of about thirty minutes. This was done before I heard anything. In fact it was done before I was even decided on to do the orchestration.
From David Lahm:
I knew Mike Gibbs slightly in 1960--we were both students at The School of Jazz in Lenox, MA. Did he play trombone at that time? I think he was born (or spent a goodly time) in S. Africa.
MG: I was born in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia)
DL: In 1967, I went several nights to hear Gary Burton's Quartet in NY; he had Larry Coryell on guitar, Steve Swallow on bass and Roy Haynes (later Bob Moses) on drums. It was a wonderful band and Mike had contributed a piece (maybe more) to their book. My favorite was called "June 15th, 1967."
MG: Hello David.
I remember you. In fact I may have a pic of you which I took at Lenox! I am a trombonist and did play at Lenox in Herb Pomeroy's student band; Freddie Hubbard played trumpet, Connie Kay on drums...heady times!!
I did write a lot of pieces for Gary's band back then. I'm pleased you liked June 15th 1967. Gary tells me he played it at a club opposite Thelonius Monk, who also liked it!!
From Chris Coccaro:
My questions with regard to Paprika Plains would be:
Did you, of your own volition, use the visuals from the poem (unsung portion) as thematic source material for orchestration, that might have leaned toward cinematic scoring?
MG: I don't recall using any visuals - but I did use images gleaned from a few of the words in the song. I had no specific instructions from either Joni or Henry - though we discussed what I might do very casually.
CC: What do you think about Joni's assertion that the "strings are out of tune?"
I tend to think it is the piano that has slid rather than a whole orchestra but since Henry is gone, it will be Joni's word, unless you can set the record straight.
MG: Yes - there is a moment where strings and piano are out of tune - I (we all) missed that at the time. The orchestra tuned to the track at the beginning of the session, but it was ages later that I learnt that the piano part was edited together from improvisations done on different days, which suggests the reason for the tuning discrepancy.
CC: Did Joni give you any reference to (or did you discuss) the orchestral works of other composers to draw from? I hear both Stravinsky and Debussy - less sure on Rachmaninoff.
MG: No, our discussions were more along the lines of a few pictorial images - like "I dreamt Paprika Plains - bleak and god forsaken" and "turquoise river snaking" - I loved that one!
From Dave Blackburn:
What have you been working on lately?
MG: My current project is a concert (Oct 26th) with Bill Frisell and the NDR big band - in Hamburg. I recently finished orchestration of Dark Side of the Moon featuring Nguyên Lê with (again) NDR big band - we did four concerts, and plan to studio-record it - Dec was scheduled but seems likely to be later now.
DB: Thank you Mike for sharing your Joni memories with us.
MG: If you get to speak with Joni - please pass on my love and best wishes - working on her project was one of the delights of my life, and I would love to do it all again......and go to the Chinese afterwards too!