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Jazz Romance   Print

by Jason Koransky
Down Beat
May 2000

Joni Mitchell keeps trying to grasp the nuances and subtleties of love. From thrills to rage; passion to ennui; infatuation to indifference; bliss to desperation. This cycle, definite both in its inevitability and unpredictability, has served as a prevalent theme in Mitchell's music for more than 30 years.

In 1967, Mitchell seemingly understood the wheel of love when she penned her omniscient "Both Sides Now." She strummed her solo acoustic guitar as she sang the chorus in her instantly recognisable soaring soprano:

"I've looked at love from both sides now,
From give and take and still some how,
It's love's illusions that I recall,
I really don't know love,
Really don't know love at all."

With its soul-searching, Zen-like lyricism and gentle melody, "Both Sides Now" became a folk music classic, an American standard, recorded over and over by artists looking to share a piece of Mitchell's songwriting genius.

Skip forward to July 1999, to Sir George Martin's London AIR Studios. Mitchell, a mature 55, lays down the tracks for her recently released 'Both Sides Now.' The title song is the finale of the 12-track album, and this re-visitation comes as quite a departure from the '60s original. For starters, there's an orchestra (your company tends to grow as you get older). Then there's her voice - a husky, confident alto - keyed more than an octave below the '60s recording. It's lower due to the natural ageing process, not to mention her several-pack-a-day smoking habit. Mitchell appears as an artist transformed, with the phrasing, intonation and timbre of a classic jazz singer in the mold of Billie Holiday, but with a swagger and intelligence clearly her own.

This is exactly what she set out to do when she started recording 'Both Sides Now,' a theme album that comes across as an ode to the drama of love. From "You're My Thrill" to "Comes Love," "You've Changed" to "I wish I were in Love Again," Mitchell sings with aplomb over 10 subtle, lightly swinging standards and two more of her own - "Both Sides Now" and "A Case of You."

And this album is much more than a tale of love. In a way, it's a tale of Mitchell's musical life coming full circle. After all, she's always been a jazz musician at heart, exploring various avenues of the music in well-documented collaborations with the likes of Charles Mingus, Tom Scott's LA Express, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Jaco Pastorius and Don Alias. But except for singing "Summertime" and "The Man I love" on Hancock's '98 album "Gershwin's World" (winner of the '99 Down Beat Reader's and Critic's Poll Album of the Year), she had never recorded music in this genre. "Sure, this is new music for me on record, but I grew up with this," Mitchell explained. "I was born in the '40s. Even when rock 'n' roll came along, it was only on the radio from 4 - 6 pm. Standards and country and western music were on the radio. So these are really my roots.

Joni's roots, however, do not include performing with an orchestra. In fact, Mitchell never sang with a full orchestra before April of 1998. She took part in Don Henley's "Stormy Weather" benefit concert in her home town Los Angeles for the Walden Woods Project. Mitchell was one of ten female singers, including Natalie Cole, Paula Cole, Sheryl Crow, Stevie Nicks and Bjork, who fronted the orchestra at the show, and the experience made a dramatic impact.

"I sang 'Stormy Weather' and the Marvin Gaye song 'Trouble Man,'" Mitchell said. "It was such a thrill singing with an orchestra, and all of us decided that we wanted to do more of it. It's a very expensive habit. Charlie Parker got a taste for it and could hardly stand going back to the small bands. I understand that he used to sit in with Lawrence Welks just to feel the big beast around him."

But Mitchell was at first hesitant to sing with the orchestra. Her ex-husband and long-time musical collaborator Larry Klien produced the Walden Woods benefit, and he admits that it took some prodding on his part to get Mitchell to participate in the show. "I had to do some convincing, and I told her that once she sang with a large orchestra, she would want to do it some more," Klien said. "So she went ahead and did it and predictably loved it. After the event she came to me and said, 'God, I'd love to a record like this.' A couple of other singers who were involved in that show came to me and wanted to work with me on the same thing. So I told Joni that if she was going to do it, she should do it now, and together we began the long, arduous task of producing it."

Mitchell devised the "cycle of love" concept early in the process, and she and Klien then pored through dozens of albums trying to hone down the songs that would fit best into this album. Having once exchanged nuptials (they separated in '92 after 10 years together), the album became personal for Mitchell and Klien. "At one point in the process, I thought, 'Klien and I have been through just about all of this,'" said Mitchell, whose current boyfriend of six years lives in her old home town of Saskatoon, Canada. "If you've been in a relationship long enough, you experience all of these facets."

Once a song for the album was chosen, Mitchell and Klien would come up with a concept of how to treat it with an orchestra, such as an Ellington-esque swing on "Comes Love," and then send this blueprint to Vince Mendoza for orchestral arrangements. Mendoza had arranged the music and conducted the orchestra in the "Stormy Weather" concert, and for him working with Mitchell proved quite a thrill.

"All of these songs were arranged with Joni's voice in mind," said Mendoza, whose own recent orchestral album, "Epiphany" (Zebra), was nominated for a Grammy. "Her voice has changed a lot over the years ever since the first recording; it has gotten so much more interesting and colourful. Her delivery is so much more interesting. We see her breadth of experience now and the words mean more now than they ever did. I had her contemporary sound in my head. 'Turbulent Indigo' is probably one of my most valued albums - I know it backwards and forwards.

"I approached arranging every piece like a tone poem, like Strauss would write around a vocalist. Understanding the words and knowing when to move and when not to move, when to accentuate the lyrics and when not to. I learned a lot of that from Joni, how she writes and how she delivers the lyrics."

I seems odd that Mitchell, best know for her original lyrics and unique harmonic open guitar voicings, would put down her guitar and pen, and focus solely on her voice on 'Both Sides Now'. But following her disappointing commercial and critical release of '98s 'Taming the Tiger, she needed a 'personal vacation from the responsibility' of song writing. And with honesty at a premium in her lyrics, she didn't want to traverse ground that she knew would be uncomfortable

"I didn't want to think about the millennium when I wrote an album because I am too informed. I wanted a break from writing dark stuff," she related. "we're really in a terrible place as a species. If I went into the studio and did what I usually do - scrape my soul and sing about what I really think of the world - I didn't want to go through that process. I didn't want to think about how screwed up the world is, which is what would have happened if I would have gone in to write. 'Taming the Tiger' had a romance to it, but it was against a backdrop of rotten lawyers, the stinking music business."

And she also stopped playing guitar. In fact, the night before we spoke, Mitchell had picked up the guitar for the first time in about two years.

"{Both Sides Now] is much more derivative than my music is, which is stinkingly original. You know what I mean? My songs are determined to be fresh. Anything that's too original is not very popular," she said. "This album evokes a lot, while in my own music, if I found a lick where I thought I borrowed it, I might take it out. But there are a lot of things here where we borrowed from numerous sources."

In London, Mendoza put together several variations of the orchestra with 22, 42 and 71 pieces. Also invited to the sessions were guest soloists Shorter, Hancock and trumpeter Mark Isham. Peter Erskine sat in on drums and Chuck Berghofer played bass. Bringing Shorter and Hancock into the studio, in particular, brought an element into the music that Mitchell thought necessary.

"Wayne and Herbie's contributions are definitely later 20th Century," explains Mitchell, who used to spend New year's Eve with Shorter and Hancock at the now-defunct Nuclear Nuance playing in a pick-up band. "I give Wayne total liberty, because he knows how to join in to my music so well. You see, what we did with this album was make something both retro and progressive. I was thinking that you would ask me about Linda Ronstadt and Carly Simon. If you see this as another girl making a cover album you are not musically informed. I hope to come in somewhere between Ella [Fitzgerald] and Billie [Holiday], and that I could bring something to the genre that very few did - to bring out the emotional readings on the text. Ella didn't really do that. As beautiful as her pitch and time were, she didn't seem to have the emotional palette of Billie. Billie lived so much, and had this warm transcendental resonation in her voice. It was distinctive. A lot of the women in the genre are hard to nail. They over-embellish. I'm actually not a huge fan of this genre. But what I love about it is the architecture, the melodic curve, the musicality of the chordal movement. But obviously, I abandoned that with the next wave.

"[Billie and Ella are] kind of like Van Gogh and Mauve," continued Mitchell, also an accomplished painter (reproductions of four of her original lithographs, including an elegant self-portrait, appear in a special 'Both Sides Now' box released on Valentine's Day). "Mauve was an exquisite classicist. Van Gogh created a new way of painting that looked amateurish to Mauve. But it was rawer, and what it lacked in certain drawing skills, it made up for in emotion. Ella had tremendous classical drawing skills. But she didn't have the emotional colouristic palette. There were things that I thought coming into this project were things that you didn't see evidenced in very many places. That was my optimism. It's a triumph of musicality. It's got one foot in the late Romantics, one foot in Gil Evans."

Having handed the production reins over to Klien once in the studio ("I'm unproducable, hands-on in the mixes, so I said, 'This time, you be producer. I'm just going to come in and sing.'") Mitchell concentrated on making vocal magic.

"Vince and I had been preparing the music for months, and it was quite emotional for me to hear them come to life," Klien said. "Her singing was just amazing. When we did 'A Case of You,' which is entirely her live vocal, the orchestra gave her a standing ovation, and half of them were weeping. It was quite amazing to see an English orchestra get that emotional."

A very visual person, Mitchell established a vivid image as to how she interacted with the orchestra. "The best analogy that I can come up with is surfing," she described. "The difference between this and other beautiful experiences that I've had is the grand scale of it, the enormous power of the orchestra. Contemporary music is very horizontal as far as dynamics. This music, uncompressed, has a lot of thick and thin. It comes down to nothing and then swells up. You can feel these waves building up and getting ready to break. The voice is going from a silent pocket, where it can almost be whispered. Four of the pieces have a 71-piece orchestra, four have 42 and four have 22. With the big beast in particular, such as on 'You're my Thrill' and 'I wish I were in Love again,' when it swells, things tense up in a good way. You have to match the brass, you have to blend.

"Basically I was surfing a wave, so I was very alert. There was a lot internal movement in the chords. Every time I sang it, I sang it differently. My parts weren't written out, so I tried different things. It was really a thrill."

The last time Mitchell headed out on tour, she co-headlined an arena bill in '98 with fellow icons Bob Dylan and Van Morrison. While Dylan cranked the volume up to 11 and reinvented and revitalised many of his greatest hits, Mitchell "wanted to show people that I played guitar in a different way," and played her "unpopular material that was kissed off." In support of 'Both Sides Now,' Mitchell has different plans altogether. In May she embarks on a 12-city tour (as of press time the dates and cities had yet to be confirmed), playing theatres in front of an orchestra assembled from local musicians at each city. Mendoza will conduct the shows on the tour.

This tour, although short, will present jazz at a scale and elegance seen today only at select festivals and events, and through organisations such as Jazz at Lincoln Centre and Carnegie Hall. Given the drama that runs through the album, one might expect an accompanying performance to incorporate elements of theatre, perhaps a set, elaborate lighting or choreographed movements. But when this idea is suggested to Mitchell - something simple, perhaps a couch and a fireplace - Mitchell starts laughing.

"An orchestra in the living room? Maybe we could put berry bushes around their music stands and have the orchestra in the bushes. Like in black and white cinema! Actually, one night, right after the album was completed, I saw this old movie on TV where everything was playing off the lyrics. It was the story of a trumpet player, with elegant deco settings in black and white. There was a romantic tension. They would sit down and stand up, their eyes would shoot far. And it all played off the music fantastically.

"Maybe we could make [the tour] like a black and white movie, with the curtain going up from the beginning. From the minor note, the way it begins, the Wagnerian entrance of 'You're My Thrill.' It's so dramatic. I can see an old black and white movie, with the curtains rolling up, or bunching up from bottom to top. People don't dress for the theatre any more. This show would be a nice occasion to dress up."

But just because this music rings nostalgic to Mitchell, it does not stand irrelevant today. She's trying to make a real musical point, not just rehash old chestnuts. "This was an attempt to make a statement about music at the end of the 20th century, when I feel that all away across the board that music has degenerated so disgustingly."

And Mitchell, Klien and Mendoza aren't stopping now. They're currently working on two follow-up orchestral albums, one focussing primarily on Mitchell's compositions, and one covering various Christmas-themed material. So far arrangements are in the works for "For the Roses" and "Judgement of the Moon and Stars."

"From a poetic standpoint and musically, it's such a privilege for me to work on her songs," Klien said. "They exist on so many levels. Honestly, it makes it difficult for me to work on anything else."

For Mitchell, if this music hits a dead end, and she needs to kick this expensive habit, she always has her painting to which she can turn. "I just feel like a derailed painter," she confessed. "At some point I made this detour to the left, and I've been trying to get back to my goal forever. With the evolution of the music, and as the forces against it get more formidable, the desire to evolve [in music] seems so fruitless. But painting has a long way to go in its development."

And thus revolves the cycle of Joni Mitchell's life.

 

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