Ten Tracks by Joni Mitchell I can’t live without them… by Tara Minton – London Jazz News
For the LJN series “10 Tracks I Can’t Do Without,” in which jazz musicians take a deep (and entirely personal and selective) dive into the music of their idols, singer-songwriter Tara Minton picks out some of Joni Mitchell’s songs that have had the most lasting impact:
Joni MitchellThe career of spans more than five decades. In 2002, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 44th Grammy Awards for her canon of over 200 songs that have touched the lives of millions around the world with their tender, raw insights into the human condition. Joni Mitchell is also one of the most covered artists of all time. Certainly, for me, Joni’s songs are the soundtrack of my own soul. She is one of the few songwriters to roam freely between the worlds of folk, pop and jazz and has worked with some of the true giants of the jazz world including Herbie Hancock, Charles Mingus, Jaco Pastorius, Pat Metheny, Wayne Shorter, Lyle Mays and Peter Erskine.
Joni’s expression is not limited to words and music alone – she has painted the majority of her album covers. In fact, she describes herself as a “painter derailed by circumstances”. His album covers have been the inspiration for my own collaborations with visual artists over the years, just as his experimentation with song structure, form and subject continues to inform my own writing. If you want jazz training, you listen to the masters – Parker, Young, Monk, Coltrane. For a songwriting education, I can’t think of anything better than marinating in Joni Mitchell’s extensive catalog of recordings – while you’re at it, you’ll definitely learn about yourself, too.
1. ‘The Last Time I Saw Richard’ by Blue (1971)
My roommate, Jo, gave me a copy of Blue in 2007. I had been dumped and had just decided to become a songwriter. Sitting cross-legged on my bed listening Blue opened a window into my soul. ‘The Last Time I Saw Richard’ is a masterful ending to the album – after setting the scene with two rather naïve conversational verses, Joni capitulates in the final verse, singing “all good dreamers pass by here someday , hiding behind bottles in the dark”. cafes.” This sudden shift in vulnerability knocked me over! What a way to recognize the daily pain of loss and the hope that gently follows. “Only one phase, those dark cafe days…”
2. ‘Edith and the Kingpin’ by The whistle of summer lawns (1975)
Many of Joni’s compositions that I love are just three verses that tell a story. “Edith and The Kingpin” is one – a cutting commentary on the superficial world of wealth and power that presents women as conquests to be won, pitted against each other as objects of desire. It’s a scathing look at the underside of high society and I love it! Joni’s live band is crazy: Pat Metheny, Jaco Pastorius, Lyle Mays and Don Alias. So heavy.
3. “Coyote” by Hegira (1976)
I discovered this song in my early twenties when I was rebelling against sexist double standards when it comes to sexual expression. Joni sings “Coyote is in the cafe. He looks at a hole in his scrambled eggs. He picks up my scent on his fingers as he watches the waitresses’ legs. What a way to describe a player. One evening, while watching “The Last Waltz”, an Irish folk singer friend said “Joni is slag”. Boy did he have an ear full!
4. “Car on a Hill” by Court and spark (1974)
The song for anyone who got up. The opening groove with Tom Scott’s saxophone riff creates a sense of anticipation. The song is ABA in form with an eerie and unusual B section that breaks up the mood with fluid piano moving through multiple time signatures with layered vocals, chimes and flutes. It’s like going into a daydream of denial, before the sound of a car horn shatters the vision and we’re back, anxiously waiting for his car on the hill…
5. “Free” from Canyon Ladies (1970)
Here is Joni’s ode to street musicians: “Across the street he was standing and playing his clarinet very well for free.” Delightfully appointed clarinetist Paul Horn plays a playful New Orleans-style solo on the outro. I love how it clashes with Joni’s piano waltz, invoking the competing soundscapes of bustling New York City. I’ve always thought Tom Waits was the master of capturing time and place in song, but Joni really nails it with this one.
6. ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ by Mingus (1979)
Joni flirted with jazz influences in her records leading to Mingus, but that was the moment she dove in headlong. I love this take on Mingus’ weird and wonderful ode to Lester Young. It starts with a free intro between bass and soprano saxophone (Jaco Pastorius and Wayne Shorter no less) with Peter Erskine whispering the time. Herbie’s electric piano creeps in and Joni sings the lead in his distinctive soprano, followed by his famous vocals on John Handy’s original sax solo on Mingus’ 1959 record, “Ah Um.” This collaboration was Mingus’ last recording before his death – I treasure it as a gift from two brilliant misunderstood artists.
7. “Chelsea Morning” by Clouds (1969)
This song is from Joni’s second album, Clouds. I’m not a morning person, but ‘Chelsea Morning’ is so infectious and upbeat I almost believe I could be. I love going back to those earlier albums when Joni was still honing her mastery of metaphor – “the first thing I heard was a song outside my window and traffic wrote the words.” I would have been delighted to write such a line at twenty-five.
8. “The Jungle Line” by River: Joni’s Letters (2007)
Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen were longtime friends. I love this direct performance of The Jungle Line – Joni’s beat poem from The whistle of summer lawns inspired by a painting by Henri Rousseau. Leonard Cohen’s delivery is like a solemn offering – a nod of respect from one great poet to another. Herbie Hancock’s playing is masterful. You can hear him respond to the lyrics while referencing the overlaid riffs from Joni’s original recording. It’s a stunning duo.
9. “Woodstock” by Canyon Ladies (1970)
For me, this piece is a master class in diatonic melodic writing. The song is only two chords long, but Joni’s vocal melody is so unexpected and engaging; I am hypnotized. Vince Mendoza won a Grammy for his orchestral arrangement of “Woodstock” in Travelogue (2022), but I love this stripped down version of Joni which is accompanied on the keyboard with tasteful quartal voicings. It just confirms that if a song is written well, it will come to life with one voice and one instrument.
10. “Both Sides Now” from Both sides now (2000)
Joni wrote this song when she was only 23 years old. For me, it stands alongside Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” as a rare work of true insight into the human soul. Revisiting the song at 57, Joni brings the weight of her life’s experience to her vocal delivery – it brings me to tears every time. Vince Mendoza’s orchestral arrangement is truly inspired and some beloved British legends feature on the record including Stan Sulzmann and Skaila Kanga.
LINK: Interview with Tara Minton for the launch of the new album Two for the road