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Paprika Plains: Joni Mitchell’s Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter at 45 Print-ready version

How the singer’s 1977 LP furthered her fascination with jazz

by Lee Zimmerman
Rock & Roll Globe
December 16, 2022

Although Joni Mitchell had long since abandoned her image as a forlorn folkie, Don Juan's Reckless Daughter still served a stunning departure from the more accessible music she recorded early in her career.

Released as a double album on December 10, 1977, it's more in keeping with her stated goal of diversifying her approach and delving into more experimental realms of a more abstract nature. While certain early efforts defied the norm as far as the usual singer/songwriter template - the free-flowing nature of Blue being an ideal example - Don Juan's Reckless Daughter moved well beyond any boundaries established before. It found Mitchell's fascination with jazz - initially attempted on Hejira, the album released a year before, and hinted at with its predecessor The Hissing of Summer Lawns - fully realized at last. It is, in fact, a total transition from her more song-oriented approach to the more ambitious designs she was striving to achieve once her contact with Asylum Records was close to be completed.

Consequently, despite the fact that the album offered plenty of room for Mitchell to pursue her muse, it's decidedly oblique. An extended instrumental titled "Dreamland" features nothing more than percussion and voices, while "Overture," the track that kicks things off features six guitars playing simultaneously in different tunings. Stranger still, "Paprika Plains" is an improvised piano piece with orchestral accompaniment and takes up the entirety of side two. Ostensively a narrative about a late night encounter with indigenous people in a bar, it veers from themes of trouble and despair to a dream-like trance where an array of seemingly disparate subjects are shared, a free flowing narrative of decidedly surreal and hallucinatory designs. Mitchell herself claimed she was enticed by the idea of spontaneity and a willingness to simply allow her muse to take her where it would.

It was, in fact, all about improvisation with little regard to commercial concerns. Although one song, "Off Night Backstreet" was released as a single, it failed to find traction. Not that there wasn't at least some inkling of a familiarity factor involved. The B-side of that single, "Jericho" had previously appeared on Mitchell's live album Miles of Aisles, while the aforementioned "Dreamland" found a place of prominence of the Roger McGuinn album Cardiff Rose, albeit in a decidedly different setting.

Nevertheless, the album did bring Mitchell a decidedly measure of credibility within fusion circles, aided by contributions from members of the band Weather Report - specifically, bassist Jaco Pastorius, reed player Wayne Shorter, percussionist Manolo Badrena and Alex Acuña, the band's drummer and percussionist. Notably, Acuña and Badrena are given compositional credits on the track titled "Tenth World."

The album cover was also intriguing. It pictured Mitchell in three different guises, notably one that found her in blackface under the guise of "Art Nouveau." It's obviously Joni in full method acting mode, yet its image illicits an uncomfortable conversation about race and appropriation that has surprisingly been overlooked in this instance.

Clearly, Mitchell was intent on submerging her previous persona. Her next album, Mingus, was devoted entirely to the music of...well, Charles Mingus.

Nevertheless, with Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, her transformation as a jazz disciple was nearly complete.

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Added to Library on January 31, 2023. (1604)

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