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Ambitious Is Not the Word for Joni Mitchell’s Don Juan Print-ready version

by Ken Ney
Unicorn Times
January 1978
Original article: PDF

Don Juan's Reckless Daughter
Joni Mitchell
Asylum BB-701

HER BEST MUSIC is built of large, drifting spaces that seem quieter and larger as her lyrics settle in. She is the smoker's head leaning back and the last drag of the cigarette sailing forth. Whatever her action, there remains a long stillness beneath it all, where she casually walks from one album to the next; eventually rising to rehearse the role of the much-traveled and forever lower. In her strolls between folk and jazz she seemingly crosses rock; never staying to actually play in it, but always she changes it. Don Juan's Reckless Daughter?

Joni Mitchell has never received the credit for her music as she has for her verse. While many flash the floodlights on Steely Dan for pulling the jazz into rock, Mitchell was there four years ago recording Court and Spark with a jazz quintet named the L.A. Express. When she decided to un-pop her sound even more, she plucked bassist Jaco Pastorius from Weather Report, and teamed him with guitarist Larry Carlton and percussionist Bobbye Hall to form the best American band of 1976 (though it was only a studio arrangement). Read a review of her work, however, and what one invariably gets is an analysis of the neatly printed lyrics and nary a mention of what accompanies it. Like Paul Simon and Tom Waits, she is cheated praise of what may be her better part.

That part has, for the moment, stabilized, fracturing very little to advance the progression that has become her trait. For this reason alone, Don Juan's Reckless Daughter is a disappointment. Miles of Aisles aside, Mitchell's last three albums - Court and Spark, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, and Hejira - all matched a drive for sophistication and discovery that pushed each record that much further along into Mitchell's move toward Jazz. One had hoped, in light of reports that "Joni Mitchell is recording with Weather Report," that something unprecedented was within reach - that of a major "rock" artist in collaboration with a major jazz group.

But Joni Mitchell didn't record with Weather Report - true, Jaco's all over it, and there's Saxophonist Wayne Shorter with a solo or two. Not to mention Acuna and Badrena, the group's rhythm section, heating up side three. But Joe Zawinul, the groups leader and force, is nowhere in sight. And Weather Report without Zawinul is like the Who without you-know-Who, or Led Zeppelin without the head Zeppelin. No, no collaboration here. Joni's left to her own compositions and devices, and as awesome as they are, they're the same she produced on Hejira. To the point where every cut but the feature-length "Paprika Plains" and the heady "The Tenth World/Dreamland" could have come off that album, and made it the double set instead. The lack of chances taken is the lack of interest received.

Safety, then, is in numbers, and size. The largeness of "Paprika Plains" is just short of DeMillean, as Mitchell labors on the piano and the stirring of meaningful strings inflate the premises. That this homage to the concerto slowly turns itself around to a more comfortable jazz needn't be a statement on Mitchell's part. It's this grand scale she chooses to compose in, magnifying short, impressionistic notes into cries of high drama. Her search for the epic has led her to this, to the same mistake others have made in equating importance with size. Ambitious isn't the word here - pretentious is. Were it not for the fact that everything she touches turns a glossy shade of beauty, "Paprika Plains" would only matter for the album's cover art.

[TEXT MISSING FROM ORIGINAL PUBLICATION - may have been: "The Tenth World" is a...] ...running exercise in one or so Caribbean rhythms accentuated by the Weather Report firehouse of Acuna and Badrena. The album seems abruptly intercepted by the pair, a cutaway to the islands that lasts for a good (?) seven minutes, and leaves one wandering around the room looking for the Joni Mitchell record that was just on the turntable. She pops back up in "Dreamland," and it becomes apparent that the previous track was more or less a prelude to this. It's enjoyable, in a silly way, and if Joni's tale of a winter hiatus to the warm and balmy beaches of the Caribbean is a bit dizzy, look closer. Something's behind the melodious rhythm, and taken as a whole, "The Tenth World/Dreamland" makes for a minor appeal for such a diverse inclusion.

In the bands of sides one and four, in the very excellence of the album, Joni surges forth with Jaco by her side; and once again employs the sharp stretches of guitar and bass that made Hejira her most audibly beautiful work. Pastorius is on the end of heavier riffs this time, and a track like "Cotton Avenue" simply drops and curls at the feet of this young master. He is the Orson Welles, the Boy Wonder of bass, let loose by Mitchell to run among the electric trains of his four strings and play away across the passing songs she has built for him. He is her heavy rock, and when he is absent, as on "Otis and Marlena" and "The Silky Veils of Ardor," it's Joni herself who curves and bends the pieces in a way she hasn't done before. Only she does it with her voice, singing a deep physicalness that catches her in a low, quiet setting.

Oh, this woman can wail when she wants to. She rides out of "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter" shaking her fist, high atop Jaco's bulging beat, a straight stream of music never slacking. She's a monster, a furious sashayer, spilling a vision of this country just as she would have a lovers' quarrel in the past.

Her epic lies here, at least the start of it, and not on those paprika plains. Her resolution to more-or-less stay within the same musical boundaries is discouraging, but knowing that she moves with a greater zest and aggressiveness is a sign that she moves, period. Sooner or later, she'll take that walk deeper into jazz, and carry on in her most progressive way.

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