photo by JAY BLAKESBERG
Joni Mitchell: Both Sides Now
Joni Mitchell, vocals; Wayne Shorter, soprano & tenor sax; Mark Isham, trumpet; Herbie Hancock, piano; Chuck Berghofer, bass; Peter Erskine, drums; Vince Mendoza, arr., cond.
Reprise 476210-1 (HCDC). 2000. Larry Klein, Joni Mitchell, prods.; Geoff Foster, Ben Georgiades, engs. ADD? TT: 51:35
Performance: 4 ½ stars
Sonics: 4 ½ stars
It's easy to mistake maturity in the art for maturity in the artist, but, after more than 30 years and 18 albums, and in a business that encourages heroic infantilism, Joni Mitchell seems to have become a certified grownup in both categories. After the dissolution of her long (by today's standards) marriage to bassist Larry Klein, she has reunited with her long-lost daughter (and grandchild), now evidently enjoys a solid working relationship with Klein (who continue to co-produce her albums), and has all along pursued her painting. Smack dab in the middle of her middle age, Mitchell seems well entrenched in several sorts of unexpected happiness, love and fulfillment.
But the six albums that followed her last bona-fide masterpiece, Shadows and Light (1980), however exquisitely crafted, seemed to exist less because they had to be created than because Mitchell could make them. However brightly they glittered, records like Dog Eat Dog and Turbulent Indigo seemed... unnecessary. The dark harrower of her own soul had become an aesthete, and I began to take more seriously Mitchell's statements that she considered herself less a musician than a painter who occasionally wrote songs. Joni Mitchell, of all people, seemed to have outgrown music.
Until this strange new CD. Both Sides Now comprises 10 standard jazz ballads and two Mitchell classics, the songs sequenced to "trace the arc of a modern romantic relationship," says Klein, who should know. Mitchell is accompanied by an understated rhythm section (Chuck Berhofer, Peter Erskine), occasional soloists (Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock), and 70 members of the London Symphony. The album will no doubt charm and offend by equally large measures. Offended will be those who regret that Mitchell ever heard of jazz - whether because they don't like jazz, or because they love it not wisely but too jealously. Those charmed will think Both Sides Now Mitchell's strongest, most confident, most elemental jazz project ever.
It is also very beautiful. Vince Mendoza's arrangements recall not so much Nelson Riddle at his most lush as Gustav Mahler at his least nervous, and the gorgeously played brass chorales on such tracks as "You're My Thrill" and "Answer Me, My Love" are positively Brucknerian. But Mendoza's strings are less "sweetener" than a smooth, dry red wine from Tuscany. Nor is he above having some fun - but his wit is so gentle as to be almost dreamlike, as in the faint, endlessly repeating piano triplets of "At Last."
All this sonic satin would be wasted without a precious jewel at its center, and Mitchell's voice seems ever more complexly faceted even as age and tobacco increasingly roughen its cut. Her high notes remain, however weakened, but her low register has grown more textured and expressive with each record. Her interpretive strengths here are less the scat coloratura of Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, more the intimate musical monologues of Betty Carter and Shirley Horn, with a good helping (especially on "You've Changed") of Billie Holiday's rhythmic coyness.
But Mitchell's vocal style is entirely her own - the pure folk roots of her early albums are as evident here as are the flavors of the jazz singers she's studied in the 30 years since. John Atkinson thinks it an acquired taste, but I've always loved the flighty, unpredictable self-absorption of Mitchell's phrasing. Where Horn might sing a long, vibratoless tone, Mitchell bends or ornaments; where Carter drops a word, Mitchell might add a phrase, even to her own well-established lyrics. She's entirely in the moment here, seeming to conversationally sing whatever pops into head and heart, with impeccable intonation, time and musicality. That sounds to me like a definition of the language of jazz, no matter how thick her folky accent. Most impressive is how comfortable "A Case of You" and the title song sound among such classics as "Comes Love," "Don't Go to Strangers," and "Stormy Weather." In 1969, "Both Sides Now" sounded endearingly precocious; here, in its position at album's end, it sounds lived.
As Peter Erskine describes elsewhere in this issue, this is close to a pure audiophile recording: three mikes hung on a single "tree" above the orchestra, with separately miked iso booths for Mitchell, Berghofer, and Erskine. The string sound is lush, with an entirely convincing sense of space - George Martin's AIR studio, a refurbished church. The only missed opportunities are the absence of hall ambience between tracks; those fades to digital black are jarring. The CD is HDCD-encoded; as I do not have a HDCD-capable CD player and JA does, he comments that, as natural as the undecoded sound is, the HDCD decoding process produces an astonishingly unforced, easy-on-the-ear balance in which a full measure of high frequencies blends naturally with the instrumental fundamentals. "A sonic winner," he confirms.
For the first time in 20 years, Joni Mitchell has made music that sounds as if it had to be made. It's certainly music that I have to hear - again and again.