By Michael Katz
Jazz has always attached itself to the popular musical idioms of the day, from Tin Pan Alley to the Beatles and even (gasp) hip hop. But Wednesday night’s concert at the Hollywood Bowl highlighted a reverse aspect, Joni Mitchell’s mid-seventies adaptation of jazz into her own style of songwriting and performance. Make no mistake, even with musical giants like Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, and even absent Ms. Mitchell in person, the voice was distinctly Joni, her words weaving poetic narrative, her rhythms enticing and challenging.
The program was divided into a first act of songs mostly from Court and Spark and Hejira, and the second act re-creation of The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Although Herbie Hancock won a Grammy for his CD River: The Joni Letters, all the arrangements Wednesday night were the work of co-leaders Brian Blade (drums and a sparkling blues guitar on “Strange Boy”) and Jon Cowherd (keyboards). They brought in a first rate ensemble, with Tom Scott and Mark Isham out front on tenor and trumpet.
The five guest vocalists all brought something different to the program, and it’s a pretty good bet that the disparate audience of diehard Joni fans and Wayne/Herbie followers made some new musical acquaintances. Glen Hansard, the Irish singer from The Frames and the film The Commitments made only one appearance in the first set, but it was a sprightly rendition of “Coyote,” which highlighted his own guitar playing, the percussion of Jeff Haynes and dueling solos from Tom Scott and Wayne Shorter, who played a soaring soprano sax throughout his appearances.
Aimee Mann comes closest to resembling Joni Mitchell in voice and appearance, which is probably an unfair comparison, akin to the trumpeters who assume the Miles Davis chair in re-creations of his bands. But she was out front to start the show with “Court and Spark,” steady and heartfelt, though the mix of the ensemble behind her was a little strong. Throughout the evening she had some of the signature Joni tunes, including “Free Man in Paris” and, in the second half, “Shades of Scarlet Conquering” and the title track, “Hissing of Summer Lawns,” which featured Herbie Hancock providing some haunting piano accompaniment. Hancock only appeared on three tunes, but he was in top form each time.
Cassandra Wilson brings her own unique style to everything she touches. Her voice is low and sonorous, her readings always with a spark of originality. She had three numbers in the first act, including “Hejira,” with a lush solo by Mark Isham, but most notably Joni’s hit “Help Me,” which started with the familiar opening chords and moved toward a plaintive, thick-as-molasses second chorus. Unscheduled but equally moving was “Blue Motel Room,” which turned into a duet with Tom Scott. Wilson’s vocals, which can fall an octave below the tenor’s midtones, make for a stunning combination, which was repeated during the second set’s opener, “In France They Kiss On Main Street.” It’s a pairing that could easily stand up to an album of its own.
Chaka Khan projects an entirely different presence. She’s a diva, but played it with a degree of understatement and reverence toward the material. “Strange Boy,” with Brian Blade playing a Delta blues guitar and Greg Leisz on steel pedal guitar, was a soulful performance and “People’s Parties” was effectively funky, with her ability to soar into soprano at a moment’s notice. Her two contributions to the second set, “Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow” and “Sweet Bird,” were both sensitive and dramatic interpretations.
Kurt Elling always seems to rise to the forefront in these group presentations, although his introduction was a bit shaky, with a Sinatra reference that seemed out of place. “Black Crow,” coming early in the first set, featured a terrific solo by Shorter, but overall seemed a little disjointed. His later contribution to the first set, “The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines” (the lone piece from the Mingus album) was a perfect vehicle for him, and teamed him with some sparkling piano work from Hancock. Elling’s voice has a stark clarity to it, no small advantage in an evening when five different singers are interpreting an artist whose lyrics are central to the show’s purpose. There were times, especially during the second act performance of The Hissing of Summer Lawns, — which despite its acknowledged excellence is still not as familiar to many as Joni Mitchell’s earlier work — when you had to adjust to the different intonations of the artists to pick up the lyrics. Not so with Elling. “The Jungle Line” doesn’t require much in the way of subtlety, but “Edith and the Kingpin,” enhanced by Shorter and Scott on their saxes, was presented with the patented Elling sensibility.
Glen Hansard finally made it back with “The Boho Dance” and, to close the show, “Shadows and Light.” By the end, the hope that Joni Mitchell might make an unscheduled appearance had given way to a satisfaction that a segment of her work, under-appreciated by many, had been revived in high style, artfully arranged by Blade and Cowherd and performed with heart and spirit by the group they had assembled.
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Herbie Hancock photo by Tony Gieske.