JONI MITCHELL 'Both Sides Now' (Reprise) One thing to make clear at the outset: Unlike other pop-rock divas who dip their toes into the jazz and classic standards pool, Joni Mitchell is no dilettante. Even the most casual survey of Mitchell's vast recorded output by the not-so-casual jazz fan would reveal an insurgent, exploratory spirit very much at home with such skittish romantics as Miles Davis, Lester Young or Gerry Mulligan. It wouldn't be much of a stretch, for instance, to place her 1976 album "Hejira" among the fusion jazz classics of the decade. And certainly no pop star of Mitchell's magnitude has since taken the kind of dare that her 1979 homage "Mingus" represented at the time.
Skeptics need to hear her stunning guest turn two years ago on Herbie Hancock's "Gershwin's World" (Verve), on which she sang "The Man I Love" and "Summertime" with such depth and subtle inventiveness that many couldn't believe it was really Joni Mitchell. (Some guessed Shirley Horn. Still others said hesitantly, "Carmen McRae?") Clearly, her work here marked a considerable distance from her mischievous mid-1970s dabbling with such Lambert, Hendricks and Ross artifacts as "Twisted" and "Centerpiece." When during a recent tour with Bob Dylan, Mitchell sneaked in such standards as "Comes Love" along with her own tunes, the prospect of a full album of Mitchell and classic pop became tantalizingly visible.
That album, "Both Sides Now," makes a limited-edition appearance this month before going nationwide in March. It's a mixed blessing at best. The good news is that Mitchell's voice - ripe, rich and burnished to a mahogany glow - wraps itself around each of these familiar compositions (including two of her own, title track included) with worldly confidence and solicitous intelligence. The bad news is that the strings-brass-and-rhythm arrangements are so oppressive throughout that they all but smother her to death.
Ask anyone who knows me and they'll tell you I'm as much a sucker for a luscious, pretty string arrangement as any melancholy baby. And it wouldn't have been a bad thing for "Both Sides Now" to carry a few orchestrated pieces here and there. But there seems something calculated in the omnipresence of these thick, glossy arrangements - almost as if those assembling the album (including Mitchell herself?) sought to avoid the kind of spare, small-group context that would provide genuine risk and, consequently, true revelation.
The choice to make "Both Sides Now" as plush and comfortable as a luxury automobile shows its defects from the start with "You're My Thrill." Those who already own 1959's "Lady in Satin," Billie Holiday's poignant last testament, will recognize the keynote nod to Lady Day - especially in Mitchell's own brittle and angular approach to the lyrics. But while it's obvious Mitchell sounds much better than a diminished and dying Holiday, it's just as obvious that the effort to honor the latter's memory blunts dramatic impact; worse, it almost sounds as if Mitchell is straining at the outset to stand as one with Billie Legend.
You can feel the whole album exhale with the next track, "At Last." Here is where Mitchell's rueful maturity and command of phrasing tap unsuspecting fans on both sides of the jazz-pop divide and make their eyes grow big. Her writerly sensibility, more highly evolved than most singers at any level of the pop pyramid, confronts the familiar lyrics with levelheaded tenderness. For those unabashed Mitchell fans, who wouldn't know Harold Arlen from Harry James, hearing her late-period voice (coarsened by time, but still capable of limpid sound) convey the songs on this album will be an education. That is, whenever the orchestra keeps out of her way.
Sometimes it does, gratifyingly so on the aforementioned "Comes Love" - which melds so well with Mitchell's whisky-sour approach to conventional romance that you'd think she'd written it in 1978, instead of Lew Brown, Sammy Shear and Charles Tobias in 1939. But for all the attempts to make these arrangements sound like those which so comfortably framed the most resonant work by Reprise's founder Frank Sinatra, they, too, often sound like one of Max Steiner's 1940s film scores on steroids. The orchestra doesn't just want to accentuate these songs. It wants to conquer and plunder them like a colonial armada.
And Mitchell isn't the only one who almost gets swamped. Some of her old buddies, notably Hancock on piano, Mark Isham on trumpet and Wayne Shorter on reeds, contribute graceful solos that manage to elbow their way to your pummeled senses through thickets of strings and brass. Their presence only makes you wish that this grandiose project had been pared down to them, a bass, a trap set and Mitchell herself. OK, so maybe "A Case of You," the other Mitchell original on the disc, wouldn't have sounded markedly different from its original 1971 incarnation on "Blue." It still would have been more interesting than the gaudy wrapping applied here.
For all my complaints, I truly hope "Both Sides Now" succeeds, for no other reason than it'll embolden her to try it again with more esoteric material from the pop songbook - and with a more minimalist setting.