Both Sides of Joni
COURTING, SPARKING, REVIVING: Suddenly, everything is coming up Joni, and on the vast and expanding panorama of Joni lovers, all seems right with the world for a minute. That said, the prevailing theme on Shine, Joni Mitchell’s first album of new material in a decade, is that far too little is right with the world. Over the course of ten songs, Mitchell uses her powers of poetry and musical invention to take on a litany of ills before us, i.e. ecological angst, materialism, religious extremism, and the secular extremism of corporate greed (forget for the moment that the album comes to us via Hear Music, the McStarbux imprint).
If that sounds like a recipe for a Debby Downer kind of encounter, think again. As she has in her best music over the years Mitchell seduces us with oblique lyricism in the melodic department, and melodious charms in the lyric department. Few artists could so deftly balance the luminous and the edgy as this enlightened Canadian.
In a sense, Shine is a reconsideration, decades of wisdom later, of her boppy “Big Yellow Taxi,” with its proto-eco mantra “you paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” She offers a more sober version of that tune, called “Big Yellow Taxi (2007),” and pursues the sentiment more deeply and darkly on the haunting “If I Had a Heart” (with its crypto-eco mantra “we’re making this Earth a funeral pyre”) and “Bad Dreams,” on which she praises the power of the wake-up call.
Musically, Mitchell keeps it cool and lean, doing much of the instrumental work herself, including some loveably quirky electronic tracks. Aiding the process are saxist Bob Sheppard (a star of the recent Solvang Jazz Festival) and the ambience-meister, pedal steel player Greg Liesz. An album which closes with the hopeful “If” opens with a jazz-folk colored instrumental, “One Week Last Summer,” reminding us of her innate jazz connection, in her chords, note choices, phrasing and just plain attitude.
That jazz undercurrent is the subject of Herbie Hancock’s glorious new Joni tribute project, River (Verve). Hancock, who brings the music to Campbell Hall on Sunday (with Sonya Kitchell doing vocal honors) has paid ultimate respect to his subject, while making his best album since his Gershwin tribute. He captures the reflective character and subtle, nonconformist genius of her music, from his cool take on “Court and Spark” onward.
Singers show up, including Norah Jones, Tina Turner, Corinne Bailey Rae and Joni herself, but the greatest “singer” is saxophonist Wayne Shorter, a frequent collaborator and kindred spirit of Mitchell’s, and for good reason. When Hancock steps outside the Mitchell songbook for a fresh spin on Shorter’s acoustic-Miles-era classic “Nefertiti,” poetic justice descends on our ears and hearts. Once again, all seems right-and right-brained-with the world. For a minute.
KEEP MAKING SENSE: Despite the ironically utilitarian name of the group, the NYC-based Common Sense Composer Collective is up to some rebellious tricks to make its music manifest in the world. Like Bang on a Can and other composer collectives, they have banded together and heeded the call of the do-it-yourself imperative-as necessary in the world of young classical composers as any other genre, if not moreso.
This Friday and Saturday nights, we can hear some of what they’re about here on the left coast in our little village, as the semi-locally based Robin Cox Ensemble performs Common Sense music at Contemporary Arts Forum (http://www.sbcaf.org/main.html). It’s all part of the enterprising–and common sense-ical–“Strike Series” at CAF, through which the gallery capitalizes on the empty venue between exhibitions with varied cultural happenings. This weekend’s fare is new music by the likes of composers you may or may not be familiar with–Dan Becker, John Halle, Ed Harsh, Melissa Hui, Marc Mellits, Belinda Reynolds, Randolph Wolff, and Carolyn Yarnell. Welcome to the wide, wild world of gifted American composers trying to come up for air.