She was the first, the Mother of Them All. Without her, it's likely there never would have been an Ani DeFranco or Tori Amos or Victoria Williams or Aimee Mann or Suzanne Vega or Tracey Chapman or Alanis Morrisette or any of the Liliths who got their traveling music fair together. And, lest we forget, without her song, "Chelsea Morning," Bill and Hillary Clinton would certainly have found another name for their only daughter.
Joni Mitchell was the Guinevere of folk/rock, the archetypal poet/songwriter/singer, the female gender of which "Bob Dylan" is the male. (The difference, always, was that no one ever doubted for a minute that Joni Mitchell could sing.) She was the musical Guinevere who made would-be Lancelots weak in the knees.
To some, she still is.
At the age of 56, Mitchell has just entered a new professional life and done something largely unprecedented. The disc on which she's done it is, I think, a landmark of American vernacular music. It's called "Both Sides Now" (Reprise) and, while limited deluxe editions are available now, it goes on sale in early March.
What Joni Mitchell has done that's unprecedented is this: the seminal singer/songwriter has, in one disc, transformed herself into a great interpreter. In one disc, she has become a truly great artist of jazz/pop. It is, I think, a masterpiece of a sort. And it's been a longtime coming, a lifetime in fact.
We're not talking here about Joni the Jazz Singer who first revealed herself cutely singing Annie Ross' "Twisted" on "Court and Spark" and made the eternally interesting but unsatisfactory "Mingus" with a dying Charles Mingus. She didn't really "get it" on "Mingus." She was looking at it all from the wrong side. She thought she could bring her extraordinary art as a folk/rock poet to jazz. She couldn't. She was right, the first time, with "Twisted." It just took her until now to realize it, eliminate the cutes and fulfill the implications.
What's happening on "Both Sides Now" is that all of her profound art as a singer/songwriter has gone into making her a magnificent jazz/pop interpreter. There is a life below the surface here - from polio at age 9 to serial lovers as pop music's fabled "Don Juan's Restless Daughter" to the real thirtysomething daughter she gave up for adoption and reunited with a couple of years ago.
The early press returns are either magnificent or middling. Those who think it middling tend to be those who don't know what they're hearing. It's the pop corollary of Santayana's Law: those who don't know the past are condemned to think that all repetition is nostalgia.
"Both Sides Now" is no more a "waltz through nostalgia" or "mere curio" (as Entertainment Weekly called it) than it is a great modern performance of "Death of a Salesman" or "The Emperor Jones." Mitchell is assuming what jazz singers always assume: that there is something called a classic repertoire of popular and jazz standards in America. And to that repertoire, she is bringing every fiber of her life and her talent and her musical experience.
The most obvious referent is Billie Holiday's classic "Lady in Satin." Her melodic phrasing is, obviously, based on Billie Holiday's. And Vince Mendoza's utterly extraordinary string arrangements were clearly meant to rival Ray Ellis' on "Lady in Satin" (in fact, they far surpass them).
But Mitchell's breathy alto obviously owes a huge debt to Nat "King" Cole, too. Her dry vibrato has a lot of Cole's honey-roasted sound and she even sings one Cole tune "Answer Me My Love." She caresses some of these notes Cole's way, not Holiday's. And, as only great artists can, she still remains Joni Mitchell throughout.
In one disc, she has surpassed in depth all the reigning current jazz vocalists except Andy Bey.
The forces Mitchell marshaled were as extraordinary as the disc - not just Mendoza, an arranger/keyboardist who surpassed all previous expectations, but the legendary Beatles producer George Martin, the strings of the London Symphony Orchestra, jazz pianist Herbie Hancock and her old friend and collaborator, the great jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter of Weather Report and Miles Davis Quintet fame.
Mendoza's string arrangements abound in sudden modal codas and luxuriant wit. He has gone Gordon Jenkins one better (and, on one tune, had Jenkins' help); he has consciously used the resources of a modern symphony orchestra to apply reverence to this music and imply the status of modern classic to it. Just as Joe Namath once said "it ain't bragging if you can do it," Mendoza could easily say, "it's not pretentiousness if you can carry it off and make it real."
He carries it off in spades.
On his few brief appearances here, Wayne Shorter becomes, for Joni Mitchell, part of what Lester Young was for Billie Holiday. His contributions are neither large nor frequent but they are artful and brilliant, suggesting the yearnings for something greater that underlie the whole project.
Nothing that she sings on "Both Sides Now" is even close to formulaic. Every song has been thoroughly re-imagined. "You're My Thrill" is worthy to stand next to Ray Charles. "Comes Love," one of the wittier standards, is taken almost straight, even the line "comes a mousie/you can chase him with a broom." Harold Arlen's "Stormy Weather," on the other hand, has a wink of sly wit all through it, as if she's telling us that she knows more than she should about Hollywood and Lena Horne.
Listen to "You've Changed" for a specimen of jazz/pop as exceptional as "You're My Thrill." When the great jazz saxophonist Dexter Gordon played it at the original Tralfamadore on Main and Fillmore as part of his 1976 tour, he preceded it by explaining that he always heeded Lester Young's admonition that all jazz instrumentalists should know the words to songs they play. He then proceeded to prove it by reciting, through billows of cigarette smoke and heavy-lidded eyes, the first two verses in a mock-bedroom basso that rivaled Barry White's: "You've changed. Your smile is just a careless yawn/You're breaking my heart/You've changed/You've changed/Your kisses now are so blase/You're bored with me in every way/You've changed."
What Gordon proceeded to take apart and lovingly and jaggedly reassemble, Mitchell reinforces by remelodizing and meaning every word. On this and "You're My Thrill" and "At Last" (with double-time piano plinking a la '50s doowop), she is extraordinary.
But it's on two of her own songs on "Both Sides Now" that Mitchell shows you how she has re-created herself as a great interpreter of American popular song. When she sings "I Could Drink A Case of You" (from "Blue"), the thirst of it is abject. (Her sudden interpolation of "Oh! Canada" seems close to a retch of disgust now.)
And she ends it with the title song, her best known, a song written by a wildly talented but slightly pretentious young woman in her 20s. She's interpreting it now, finding how much more meaning it has now, three decades later.
What you're hearing now is a woman who, in the '80s and most of the '90s, stopped appearing live because the debilitating symptoms of what's called Post-Polio Syndrome made it impossible; a woman who finally reunited with the only daughter she'd had and given up for adoption decades before. And when Wayne Shorter plays a yelping saxophone obligato, you're hearing a musician who lost his wife and manager aboard TWA Flight 800.
"But now old friends are acting strange/they shake their heads, they say I've changed/Well something's lost but something's gained/by living every day."
You can, believe me, hear Joni Mitchell and Wayne Shorter together for a month and still have trouble keeping a dry eye.
It's a milestone disc for Mitchell and, I think, for American music.