Joni Mitchell Revisited at Jazzway 6004

Moons and Junes and ferris wheels, the dizzy, dancing way you feel….”  “And the sun came in like butterscotch and stuck to all my senses…..”  “They paved Paradise, put up a parking lot….” 

Who of us born before 1970 doesn’t recall those memorable Joni Mitchell lyrics? And that’s just her folk/pop period. As we know, in the mid-‘70s, Mitchell began to experiment with non-traditional jazz rhythms and harmonies, working with artists such as Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and Pat Metheny, and her lyrics became even more evocative and elliptical in albums such as Court and Spark and The Hissing of Summer Lawns.

So it was a brilliant idea to present a Joni Mitchell retrospective concert on October 29th at Jazzway 6004, the home of Marianne Matheny-Katz and Howard Katz, our own local Medicis of jazz. They dedicated their third annual Art to Dine For fundraiser concert to the music of this stellar songwriter, calling it “California, I’m Coming Home” (although born in Canada, Mitchell settled in Southern California, and many of her songs reflect her life there). Matheny-Katz spoke fervently about her long-time love affair with Joni Mitchell’s music, remembering how, as a teenager with a broken heart, she sang the ballad “A Case of You,” saying, “before we had Paxil and Zoloft, we had Joni Mitchell,” whose wry, insightful lyrics gave us a way to express the pain, the mystery, the craziness of life in the twentieth century.

For the occasion she put together an outstanding ensemble of musicians, including Alan Blackman (piano), Craig Alston (sax), Michael Raitzyk (guitar), Jeff Reed (electric bass), and Eric Kennedy (drums). Alan Blackman wrote the arrangements, and it was clear that the band had worked hard to prepare for this concert. Matheny-Katz herself had a challenge to memorize the dense lyrics packed into those challenging melodies full of unusual intervals. Although she several times expressed anxiety about the high notes that the soprano Mitchell put in her melodies, her voice was up to the challenge, and she gave the tunes a jazzier flavor than even Joni herself, while sailing up to and holding the high notes with perfection.

They performed a couple of well-known favorites such as “Clouds, ” notable for Blackman’s reharmonization of the tune to add more color than in the typical folk-rock progression, and “Chelsea Morning,” with a duet between vocal and guitar playing a drone on the root note. But they mostly featured less well-known songs such as “River,” “Show Me the Way to Barangrill,” and “I Had a King.” They performed a funky version of “Car on a Hill,” in which Raitzyk tore into his solo with his usual gusto, and Matheny-Katz scatted an interlude with the piano and sax to introduce a drum solo in which Kennedy, heretofore as meek as a mouse in the background, became a roaring lion. On “Edith and the King Pin,” the piano and sax traded fours, Alston’s flurry of sixteenth notes meeting another flurry by Blackman, both rising to a frenzy, and then in a trice, winding down like a moth landing on a lace curtain.

The set ended with “The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines,” about a lucky gambler in a polyester suit. The tune began with the bass fuming like a bumblebee; Blackman added a little one-finger riff on piano, leaning over into the piano to mute the strings with his other hand. The sax later took up the bumblebee effect. While the band grew livelier and livelier, Matheny-Katz sang the wry lyrics with a sassy twang, ending the song with a wink and a whisper on the phrase, “Just Luck!”

Accompanying the fabulous performance was a fabulous meal, featuring fresh, seasonal organic produce. The Katzes provided all the food, wine, and beverages and paid the band, so that all the ticket sales ($75 a pop) were donated to the Creative Alliance (CA). Artwork displayed throughout the house was also for sale to benefit CA, which sponsors musical performances, exhibitions, and workshops, and provides art classes in schools to replace programs eliminated by budget cuts.

Matheny-Katz said that she has been invited to present the concert again at An Die Musik and Germano’s, so keep an eye out for the announcements, if you missed this concert— or if you want to hear it again.