Born in 1943 in Canada, Joni Mitchell rose to fame as a groundbreaking singer-songwriter most closely associated with the world of folk music. However, much of her output – particularly in the 1970s – showcases a fascination with jazz, which we’ll dive into in this article.
Joni Mitchell’s affinity for jazz was which was sparked early as a teen, fuelled by artists such as Edith Piaf and Miles Davis, as well as an apparent obsession with Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross, whose albums at the time she memorised.
As she recounted in an LA Time interview: “I saved up and bought [their album ‘The Hottest New Group In Jazz’] at a bootleg price. I considered that album to be my Beatles. I learned every song off of it, and I don’t think there is another album anywhere—including my own—on which I know every note and word of every song.”
But whilst jazz music was seemingly in her veins, it was not front and centre in her music in the early days, where she worked heavily on the burgeoning folk scene.
Fast-forward to the mid-70s, though, and her exploration of jazz influences was revived. The shift in her vocal range from mezzo-soprano towards contralto around this time was matched by a deepening complexity in her compositions, all of which lent itself to the new repertoire and collaborations which were to come.
It also coincided with a period where she had become increasingly dissatisfied with the rock session musicians hired to play her music, feeling that the nuances and delicate elements in her music were being overshadowed.
On the advice of some of her closest collaborators, she decided to hire jazz musicians, resulting in a chain of albums with some of the great jazz musicians in Herbie Hancock, Jaco Pastorius, Wayne Shorter, Pat Metheny, Charles Mingus and more…
The result: a series of fascinating Joni Mitchell albums which we’re going to check out now!
Court & Spark (1974)
Court & Spark marked a pivotal moment in Joni Mitchell’s career, showcasing her transition from folk and rock to a more jazz-inspired sound.
Released in January 1974, this album became one of her most commercially successful and critically acclaimed works, both then and now.
Having sought out jazz instrumentalists who could better capture the intricacies of her music, it features an all-star cast including Tom Scott, Joe Sample, and Larry Carlton. Their contributions brought a new dimension to Mitchell’s music, infusing it with a jazz sensibility that was previously absent in her work.
Songs like “Help Me” and “Free Man in Paris” became radio hits and contributed significantly to the album’s success.
The album’s blend of rock, folk, and jazz elements resonated with a broad audience and not only solidified her status as a musical pioneer, but also paved the way for her subsequent exploration of jazz in her music.
The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975)
The Hissing of Summer Lawns represented a significant shift in Joni Mitchell’s musical direction, further delving into jazz-inspired compositions and expanding her artistic horizons.
This album showcased her continuous evolution as an artist and how she was constantly experimenting with different styles and new sounds.
Released in November 1975, The Hissing of Summer Lawns was yet another departure from Mitchell’s earlier folk and pop sound. Instead, she ventured into less structured, more jazz-inspired pieces, incorporating a broader range of instruments and influences.
One notable track on the album, “The Jungle Line,” demonstrated Mitchell’s early exploration of sampling, with a recording of African musicians. It was, in fact, the first known use of the technique which would become widespread in years to come.
Other songs on the album, such as In France They Kiss on Main Street and Edith and the Kingpin, provided a glimpse into the underbelly of suburban life in Southern California, offering a unique perspective on societal themes.
It was during this same year that Mitchell also joined parts of Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour, further highlighting her versatility as an artist and her willingness to collaborate with other influential musicians.
While The Hissing of Summer Lawns may not have achieved the same level of commercial success as some of her previous works, it solidified Joni Mitchell’s reputation as a boundary-pushing artist unafraid to challenge conventional musical norms – and became a much-covered recording by a future generations of jazz musicians.
Hejira represents a significant juncture in the musical career of Joni Mitchell.
Released in 1976, the album features an ensemble of accomplished jazz musicians (including Larry Carlton, Victor Feldman, and Chuck Domanico) with a notable overdubbed performance by jazz fusion bass icon Jaco Pastorius.
The album received critical acclaim, even though it was less successful commercially than some of her previous works.
Characterised by its expansive compositions which skilfully blend elements of jazz with Mitchell’s distinctive poetic style, Jaco Pastorius’s contribution, marked by his fretless bass playing, added a layer of innovation and complexity to the album’s musical landscape.
While “Hejira” may not have garnered the same commercial recognition as some of Mitchell’s earlier albums, it left a lasting impact on her musical direction and the wider music scene. It also marked the beginning of a beautiful musical relatipnship between Joni and Jaco, who she wrote of affectionately for Musician Magazine:
“There was a time when Jaco and I first worked together when there was nobody I’d rather hang with than him. There was an appreciation, a joie de vivre, a spontaneity. A lot of people couldn’t take him. Maybe that’s my peculiarity, but then, I also have a fondness for derelicts.”
Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter (1977)
Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter marked another pivotal moment in Joni Mitchell’s artistic journey. Released in 1977, this double studio album showcased a looser and more experimental feel than some of her previous works.
She assembled a remarkable ensemble of musicians, which included the return of jazz virtuoso bassist Jaco Pastorius, along with fellow members of the renowned jazz fusion group Weather Report in Wayne Shorter, Manolo Badrena and Alex Acuña.
The album’s compositions reflected Mitchell’s willingness to delve into more improvisatory collaborations, perhaps best demonstrated by her epic 16-minute rendition of Paprika Plains which stretched the boundaries of pop music.
The album’s cover art was notable for featuring Mitchell in blackface as a male pimp character she called Art Nouveau. The reappearance of this persona through to the 1980s has come under renewed scrutiny and condemnation in recent years, as summed up by Far Out Magazine.
Mingus stands as a unique and unconventional entry in Joni Mitchell’s discography. Released in June 1979, it was (you guessed it!) the result of an intriguing collaboration with legendary jazz composer, bandleader and bassist Charles Mingus, not long before his death.
The genesis of this project allegedly began when Mingus heard Mitchell’s orchestrated song Paprika Plains and expressed a desire to work with her.
This unlikely partnership brought together two distinct musical worlds: Mingus’s broad jazz palette and Mitchell’s folk-rock sensibilities. Featuring a looser and more experimental feel than past recordings, it was based on 6 compositions written by the bassist, which Mitchell wrote lyrics to.
In true Mingus style, the album was extensively workshopped in advance, making use of a who’s who of the New York scene, who didn’t record the final album: Phil Woods, Gerry Mulligan, Eddie Gomez, Stanley Clarke and more.
In terms of the studio musicians, Mitchell has completed her immersion into the A-list of the jazz world: Charles Mingus is accompanied by Wayne Shorter, Jaco Pastorius and Herbie Hancock.
Joni Mitchell’s Jazz Influence
Joni Mitchell’s journey into jazz in the 1970s was a transformative phase in her career, showcasing her artistic versatility and an innate ability to blend different musical genres into a coherent whole.
Fast-forward to 2007 and this enduring influence on the world of jazz was celebrated with the release of Herbie Hancock’s all-star album “River: The Joni Letters.”
Paying tribute to her iconic songwriting and highly influential discography, the jazz pianist brought together his own group (Lionel Loueke, Dave Holland, Vinnie Colaiuta & Wayne Shorter) with a line-up of esteemed guests including Norah Jones, Tina Turner, Leonard Cohen & Corinne Bailey Rae).
Primarily consisting of covers of Joni Mitchell’s songs, the unique interpretations highlight the timelessness of her songs and the versatility of her music.
River: The Joni Letters received widespread critical acclaim and went on to win the Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 2008, further cementing Joni Mitchell’s status as a musical icon, decades after many of the songs were written.