Joni Mitchell's new album "Shadows and Light" (Elektra) is a two-record set, recorded live with a jazz-fusion band that includes the exceptional young guitarist Pat Metheny. Mr. Metheny, who's bound to acquire some new fans as a result of his work with Miss Mitchell, is following her album with a two-record set of his own. It's called "80/81" (ECM), and while it isn't as overtly commercial as his tightly arranged quartet LP "American Garage," it does indicate he's still taking himself seriously as a musician.
In a sense, Mr. Metheny has taken the same sort of chance on "80/81" that Miss Mitchell took when she began working with jazz-oriented musicians for her collaboration with the late Charles Mingus. Both projects represent a broadening of horizons, and both have entailed working without most of the structural props that helped make Miss Mitchell's and Mr. Metheny's earlier music so immediately accessible. Both artists foreshadowed their present departures, Miss Mitchell in the increasingly free flowing, open ended songs on her last few albums, Mr. Metheny on his first ECM album, "Bright Size Life," a more open affair than his subsequent LP's [sic]. But "80/81" and Miss Mitchell's "Mingus" and "Shadows and Light" were fresh, risky undertakings nevertheless.
"Shadows and Light" isn't as risky as it might have been, however. Three of the songs are repeated from "Mingus," Miss Mitchell's previous album, and the jazz-fusion stars who toured with her late last year (Mr. Metheny; the pianist Lyle Mays from his quartet; Michael Brecker on tenor saxophone; Don Alias on drums, and Jaco Pastorius on bass) generally subordinated their egos to the demands of her music.
But by now, Miss Mitchell's musical range is pretty broad, and in fact her eclecticism emerges as the new album's most winning feature. The new performances of her recent songs don't add much to the earlier versions, but there's a sweet remake of Frankie Lymon's 1950's [sic] classic "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" with Mr. Brecker playing some convincingly gritty rock-and-roll saxophone and Mr. Alias imitating the drummer on the Lymon original. Here and on several other numbers, the Persuasions sing vocal backgrounds and blend interestingly with the musicians, several of whom are given relatively extensive solo space.
Mr. Metheny's "80/81" is riskier but more uneven. Dewey Redman and Charlie Haden, the saxophonist and bassist who are celebrated for their work with Ornette Coleman and Keith Jarrett, are in the backing group, along with the formidable drummer Jack DeJohnette and Michael Brecker. It's an interesting but odd grouping, and Mr. Metheny has given the players only the flimsiest structures on which to build their improvisations. "Open," a free-form piece that's essentially a string of solos, tends to ramble, and so do the two "Folk Songs" (one composed by Mr. Metheny, the other by Mr. Haden) that take up the album's first side. But it's interesting to hear Mr. Metheny tackle Ornette Coleman's "Turnaround," and the free-wheeling contexts offered by most of the other pieces suit his playing just fine.
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