NOTE: I refer below to Joni’s “Free Man in Paris.” I’m writing this post in the aftermath of the Paris terror incident. I feel it’s important to not let terrorists affect anything we say or do. Consider this, in some small way, in part, a tribute.
“When the dust settles, Joni Mitchell may stand as the most important and influential female recording artist of the late 20th century.” Allmusic, online music guide.
In talking about Joni Mitchell, I’m not sure exactly where to begin. She’s an artist that I admire, whom I think is extremely important, whose music I sometimes like, sometimes love, am never indifferent to. But she’s one of those artists whom I think is valuable not only for her direct contributions but also for the impact she’s had on other musicians. (And not just folkies. Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin? HUGE fan. She also sang on Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” live in Berlin. That one totally surprised me.) Not only has she done solo work as a folk artist, she had the balls to step out and front a band of jazz heavyweights such as Pat Metheny, Wayne Shorter and Charles Mingus. Who else does that? Certainly not Dylan. (Herbie Hancock won a Grammy a few years ago for an album called, “River: The Joni Letters,” a tribute to Joni. I have a copy around here somewhere.)
In researching Mitchell and what songs I wanted to feature, I was astounded to realize how many great ones she’s written. Consider: “Chelsea Morning,” “Big Yellow Taxi,” “Both Sides Now,” “Woodstock,” “The Circle Game,” “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio,” “Help Me,” “Free Man in Paris,” “River,” just to name some of them. So I decided to first go with one of my early favorites, “Chelsea Morning.” This reflects the time she was living in the Chelsea section of New York. The Clintons have said that they named their daughter for this song:
I had thought of going with the obvious song next. How can you not go with “Big Yellow Taxi?” Who doesn’t know the lyric, “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. They paved paradise, put up a parking lot?” But while researching this I was reminded of this next song. Joni was heavily influenced by Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, the jazz vocalists. The harmonies on this song demonstrate that. And also that she is not just a lovelorn chanteuse but can also boogie when she wants.
I can’t think of Joni without reflecting on Laurel Canyon in California. What a creative time it must have been to be living there and making music with the likes of Crosby, Stills and Nash. Joni tends to use her personal life very effectively in her writing. Everybody (I think) knows that she was involved with Graham Nash for a while and inspired his song, “Our House.” And her classic album “Blue” was inspired in part by her breakup with James Taylor.
I considered doing one of her jazz songs. But then again, I wanted a song I really knew and liked, “Free Man in Paris.” Everybody who’s been to Paris knows that feeling. So this next concert video (“Shadows and Light”) is a nice compromise – one of her great tunes but backed by her then-current (late ’70’s) jazz band. The players? Pat Metheny (guitar), Jaco Pastorius (bass), Lyle Mays (keys), Michael Brecker (sax), Don Alias (drums).
Lastly, it’s common knowledge that Joni has had some serious health problems this year. (She had polio as a kid and it’s damn hard to find a picture of her where she’s not smoking a cigarette). Latest reports indicate she’s on her way to a complete recovery but that it’ll take a while. She hasn’t performed live in many years so it’s probably not realistic to expect that. Let’s hope for speedy recovery and a lot of years ahead.