The biggest disappointment at the SFJAZZ Lifetime Achievement Award gala concert on May 8 thrown in Joni Mitchell's honor to pay homage to her brilliance as an artist who plunged into jazz during different stretches of her career was her inability to make the event - due to her hospitalization on March 31, 2015 after being found unconscious in her Los Angeles home. While there continued to be puzzling and conflicting news of her health - ranging from rumors about her recovery from a mystery ailment to TMZ gossip that she was close to death - the show, a black-tie benefit for the organization's arts and education programs, went on.
Curated by musical directors Brian Blade and Jon Cowherd - both of whom had played with Mitchell - and augmented by the SFJAZZ Collective re-envisioning her compositions, the star-studded two-hour program featured various top-notch musicians from Judith Hill and Patti Austin to Joe Jackson and Kris Kristofferson creatively rendering her simple, folky tunes as well as diving deep into her complex jazz-informed songs.
With large, blues-hued photos from her early years taken by Joel Bernstein displayed above the stage, the evening began with longtime S.F. scribe Ben Fong-Torres recalling how an interview with her at her L.A. home in Laurel Canyon scored him his first Rolling Stone cover in 1969 (when the pub was still based in S.F.). "Joni was achingly honest," he said, echoing both their conversation as well as her music. "She influenced a great many people."
The program opened with a so-so straightahead take on "Court and Spark" by L.A. singer-songwriter Kelly Jones on an arrangement by Cowherd, an inspired Collective drive through Miguel Zenón's arrangement of "Both Sides Now," and Kurt Elling's dynamic, sweet and soulful shouts with the Collective on "Edith and the Kingpin," arranged by Edward Simon and highlighted by David Sánchez's blistering tenor sax solo.
Then SFJAZZ executive artistic director Randall Klein spoke to the jazz-oriented audience: "We have a very open view about jazz. Joni is impossible to classify. At one point in Joni's career, she embraced jazz fully, working with Charles Mingus and Wayne Shorter, and, as you see, she's been an influence to so many jazz musicians." And he might have added, Mitchell adventurously composed and recorded to her artistic muse, willing to explore no matter what the straitjacket expectations of her cutthroat record labels and even her fickle fans who when she began expanding beyond pop yearned for the folk singer to return.
Kline then introduced Shorter (who had been honored by SFJAZZ six years earlier and who is one of Mitchell's closest artist friends) who accepted the award, remembering meeting the rising star for the first time at the Roxy in L.A. and recalling how when Miles Davis heard that she painted said, "Let's paint together." He added, "Joni is a vocalist and composer who wrote what she wished for."
Following that, Elling returned boldly with poetry and scat on the full-bodied, drum-powered "The Jungle Line" with Blade adding to the exhilarating run, with Joe Jackson on piano deck with a clever Mitchell/New Orleans mashup of "Big Yellow Taxi" (later he delivered a mediocre vocal take on "Twisted," the comic Annie Ross/Wardell Grey tune that closed Mitchell's Court and Spark album). Hill got the proceedings grooving on "River" with the Blade-Cowherd band (that also included longtime Mitchell collaborators saxophonist Tom Scott, guitarist Greg Leisz and trumpeter Mark Isham) and later hushed the house with a sublime solo piano/vocal rendering of "Blue."
Austin preceded her two songs by speaking to Mitchell via the video camera (the show was filmed for the awardee to view) by saying, "My goddess, Joni, I love you desperately, madly, but could write some simpler songs?" She then smoothly navigated her way through the gutsy, gripping "Don't Interrupt the Sorrow" and the earthy "Two Grey Rooms," after which S.F. vocalist Laurie Antonioli, who recorded a fine album of Mitchell's music (last year's Songs of Shadows, Songs of Light), joined in with the Collective and bassist Kanoa Mendenhall, SFJAZZ high school all-star and Education Award Winner, to lovingly embrace "This Flight Tonight."
The Collective shined luminously with Avishai Cohen's slow and bluesy arrangement of "Goodbye Porkpie Hat" (the Mingus instrumental that Mitchell penned lyrics to for her jazz-steeped Mingus album), and Elling returned for a rock-energized charge through "Black Crow." But arguably the most powerful performance of the show was Kris Kristofferson giving a shaded spoken-word rendering of "A Case of You" - a poet covering a poet. The entire band gave the roots legend a standing ovation after the song. The show ended with a free-spirited launch into "Free Man in Paris," including the entire cast playing and singing, and the audience standing and singing along.
The denouement was SFJAZZ's now two-year tradition: wheeling out a wind-up Victrola player and spinning a crackly 78 of Billie Holiday singing "I'll Be Seeing You." It was a fitting end, with SFJAZZ's hope for the future (read: next year's gala) as well as a heartrending hope for Joni Mitchell to regain her health so that she can paint - and sing - again.
An edited-for-space version of this appeared in DownBeat June 2015.
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