East Troy, WI - No, Joni Mitchell did not turn into Billie Holiday overnight. She has not suddenly forsaken her folk roots and Woodstock anthems to become strictly a singer of straight-ahead jazz.
Instead, the gifted poet-painter-musician from Alberta, Canada, has merely added another mode of expression to her eclectic career.
Although some old folk fans have been scared off by Ms. Mitchell's latest album, where she explores the rudiments of bebop under the direction of the late jazz composer Charles Mingus, they were not disappointed with her superb show Thursday night at the Alpine Valley Music Theatre.
After warming up a crowd of 7,100 with some of her own hits - "Big Yellow Taxi," "Free Man in Paris," "Coyote," "Furry Sings the Blues" - Ms. Mitchell slid into a few of the more daring, more dissonant Mingus compositions. They allowed for more creative liberties, highlighting her dynamic range and her unique talent for phrasing lyrics.
And there was the added attraction of a dream band consisting of guitarist Pat Methany, bassist Jaco Pastorius, percussionist Don Alias, pianist Lyle Mays and saxophonist Michael Brecker.
These masterful jazz-oriented musicians enhanced the performance with subtle colors and textures behind the haunting, almost aloof Mitchell style.
Each also received a solo spot, which gave the whole concert a broader flavor. Pastorius performed a virtual concerto on his electric bass, using a tape system for a multiple-layer effect.
His amazing dexterity and unheard-of harmonic technique was almost overshadowed by his playful theatrics as he slapped, whipped, dropped and finally jumped on his instrument. It was a great contrast to the serene style and sweet, singing guitar work of Methany.
Percussionist Alias offered a bit of the Afro-Latin flavor with a solo spot that preceded "Dreamland."
Ms. Mitchell put down her guitar and became a sultry torch singer on the old Mingus classic, "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat."
Perhaps her greatest talent lies in painting such vivid, emotional images with words. She can neither read nor write music, and she usually approaches her tunes in a pictorial fashion. Her stories and images are so revealing and honest that they deeply touch her most avid fans.
As a nostalgic finish to a fine show, the 36 year old singer performed a touching version of the "Woodstock" theme song, a tale of idealistic young people "getting back to the garden."
The concert showed Ms. Mitchell as an able improviser, capable guitarist and sensitive lyric writer who continues to evolve and defy categories. Her music deserves the full hyphenate: folk-rock-country-jazz-classics.
The Mitchell company will perform again Friday night at Alpine Valley. The opening act, rhythm and blues vocalists known as the Persuasions, will start the show at 7:30.