David Lahm – Jazz Takes on Joni Mitchell

David Pritchard - Unassigned TerritoryDavid Lahm
Jazz Takes on Joni Mitchell
Arkadia Jazz

The highly individualistic, esoteric nature of Joni Mitchell’s repertoire bears a natural affinity to jazz, a genre characterized by improvisation. The highway, the “road,” an image that occurs repeatedly in Mitchell’s work (in both lyrics and cover art) can be metaphorically likened to improvisation itself — a departure from the beaten path into wondrous, uncharted territory. In choosing some of Mitchell’s more unusual compositions for this project, producer/pianist David Lahm advances his vision of Mitchell’s oeuvre by means of jazz. In many cases, the songs are almost completely transformed, yet within the transformation something of the spirit of the original resides. And while Joni Mitchell fans may find it incredible, Lahm found himself introducing Mitchell’s work to many of the musicians involved in this project. “Jazz musicians just don’t know her, they inhabit parallel universes,” Lahm notes. “And that was the bridge that I could erect, and hopefully cross here.”

In some cases it derives from an instrumental interpretation of the lyric — “Blue Motel Room,” for instance, relied upon spare instrumentation and wistful, sometimes humorous vocals in its original form, but here the blues are expressed more urgently, via Lew Tabakin’s knotty tenor phrases, augmented by organ, harmonica, and drums. In a more broadly conceived refashioning, the opening cut, “Solid Love,” uses the upbeat swing of the octet arrangement to capture the buoyancy of the original, at the same time informing it with a different, measured feel.

Throughout the course of an extraordinary, prolific career, singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell has reached a broad audience, and almost every music-lover has a favorite Joni tune. I was surprised to find “Edith and The Kingpin,” one of my top five, included here. The tune (which included Bud Shank and Larry Carlton in its 1975 debut on The Hissing of Summer Lawns) appealed to me for a number of reasons — its tonal qualities enhanced the suspended feeling inherent in the “story,” which opens with a set piece: a tableau of hangers-on at a club herald the arrival of the ‘dude.’ Concise, clever lyrics paint the picture: “Small town, big man, fresh lipstick glistening;” “His eyes hold Edith, his left hand holds his right;” and (the capper for me) “The band sounds like typewriters.” At the center of the tale is the kingpin’s selection of Edith from the female ensemble of wannabes. Repeated guitar lines and reverb effects seemed to convey a sensation of strobe lights and circling dance floors, and simulated the dizzying action of the narrative, which moved from drugs to seduction to an intoxicated stasis. On this CD, Randy Brecker interprets the tune on flügelhorn, taking it at a slowed-down pace, mining the song’s melancholic vein and highlighting, perhaps unwittingly, one of the more trenchant lyrics: “Women he has taken grow old too soon.” In Brecker’s hands, the tune’s ultimate sadness is realized; he captures the combined spirit of longing and futility, and he does so in a rendition that hews more closely to the original than possibly any other on the album. And that’s just fine, because they don’t get any more original than Joni Mitchell. Jazz is another way to hear her.