Canadian-born singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell, ninth on Rolling Stone’s list of The 100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time, turns 75 this month. Though best known as a ‘70s folk-pop musician, Mitchell’s jazz influences run deep: she’s collaborated with the likes of Jaco Pastorius, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny and, most notably, Charles Mingus. Jazz singers love interpreting Joni Mitchell material because of this jazz influence—the innately singable melodies, the deeply colored harmonies, the poetic lyrics.
To understand just how beloved Mitchell is among jazz singers, here’s a quick (unofficial and incomplete) list of those who’ve recorded Mitchell songs: Karrin Allyson, Becca Stevens, Cheryl Bentyne, Theo Bleckmann, Ann Hampton Callaway, Fay Claasen, Holly Cole, Denise Donatelli, Michael Feinstein, Melody Gardot, Sara Gazarek, Diana Krall, Karin Krog, Amy London, Jane Monheit, Judy Niemack, John Proulx, Diane Reeves, Janis Siegel, Bria Skonberg, Luciana Souza, Cassandra Wilson and Andrea Wolper. Songbook composers aside, is there another popular songwriter so well represented in vocal jazz?
Rhode Island-based Debra Mann, who credits Mitchell’s work as the inspiration for her own career in jazz, is the most recent singer to launch a Mitchell tribute disc. The album, Full Circle: The Music of Joni Mitchell (Whaling City Sound) tackles a dozen of Mitchell’s better-known tunes (“Circle Game”, “Big Yellow Taxi”, “A Case Of You”); Mann’s fresh arrangements and expert phrasing provide a new context for the material, even as the singer references Mitchell’s own unique vocal sound. With this album Mann joins the ranks of singers offering compelling, definitive interpretations of The Mitchell Songbook.
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by Kurt Gottschalk
We like to think of Joni Mitchell (who turns 75 this month) as a singular genius, but in truth her work is in no small part a product of the company she has kept. While she is one of the 20th century’s most enigmatic songwriters, her career can still be seen through the lens of, first, fellow folk travelers (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, et al.) and, later, fusion bohos (Pat Metheny, Tom Scott, Jaco Pastorius, Wayne Shorter, The Brecker Brothers). Part of her genius was in bringing both camps to her own middle, adding layers of complexity to the singer-songwriter craft and then updating the jazz song from Broadway and Tin Pan Alley to long, linear narratives that matched the development of the form.
Her catalogue contains such natural grist for variation and improvisation that it’s surprising jazz players don’t pluck from it more often. Herbie Hancock and Peter Herbert both released albums of arrangements of her music and Fred Hersch, Keith Jarrett, Diana Krall, Brad Mehldau, Danilo Pérez, Joshua Redman, Dianne Reeves, Jamie Saft, Norma Winstone and Cassandra Wilson have all recorded Mitchell’s music to varying degrees of new interpretation.
continue reading THE NEW YORK CITY JAZZ RECORD here page 31