With the passing of Frank Sinatra, only a precious few from the "old guard" of jazz and pop standards singers remain. Now, it seems, singers who cut their teeth on more recent pop styles will have to carry on the torch, which is exactly what Joni Mitchell aims to do on her latest, Both Sides Now.
In 1998, Joni Mitchell surprised listeners with her impressive guest appearance on keyboardist Herbie Hancock's ambitious Gershwin's World CD, delivering a wonderfully smoky and mature rendition of "The Man I Love." On Both Sides Now, she serves up an entire album of standards and the like, backed by a 70-piece ensemble (largely composed of London Symphony Orchestra members) and aided by Hancock, co-producer (and ex-husband) Larry Klein, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, trumpeter Mark Isham, and other fine musicians.
There are many things to appreciate about this disc, although it seems that the overriding Joni-goes-symphonic theme sometimes supersedes the needs of the individual songs. Mitchell's voice, with its cigarette-stained crackle, bears little resemblance to the clear, folksy sound she established 30 years ago. For the most part, she has learned to use it wisely in conjunction with these chestnuts from another age, turning in especially fine interpretations on "Don't Go to Strangers" and the Rodgers and Hart bauble "I Wish I Were in Love Again." In spots, though, she seems intimidated by either the weightiness of the arrangements or the fame of the songs themselves, getting overly fussy and filigreed (as on "Stormy Weather").
The strangest situation occurs on the final selection, in which Mitchell reinterprets one of her most famous songs, the lovely, fable-like title track. Elements of transcendence lurk beneath the surface of Vince Mendoza's colossal orchestration, but the sheer size of his treatment forces Mitchell into a corner, transforming gentle folk-rock into a philosophical manifesto. Like a good bit of Both Sides Now, it's certainly worth hearing, but it defeats its own purpose.