Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Mitchell, Joni (Roberta Joan Anderson)

Singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell is the rare pop star with a devoted following in the jazz world. Her uncommon vocal delivery draws on jazz phrasing, and her compositions share a natural affinity with jazz harmonies. Charles Mingus, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter are only a few of the jazz artists she has worked with and who have admired her work.

Roberta Joan Anderson was born on November 7th, 1943 in Alberta, Canada. Her father Bill was an officer in the Canadian Royal Air Force and later a grocer while her mother Myrtle worked as a schoolteacher. Her parents were of Norwegian and Scottish ancestry, respectively. Before she was a teenager, Mitchell’s moved with her family throughout different parts of Canada before eventually settling in the town of Saskatoon.

Sickness was a constant companion during her childhood. She was stricken with scarlet fever and when she was nine, polio. During her stay in the hospital from polio she began her infatuation with singing. In addition classical music was also an influence on Mitchell who claims, “I loved Debussy, Stravinsky, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, anything with romantic melodies, especially the nocturnes.”

As a teenager, unable to afford a guitar, she bought a used ukulele for thirty-six dollars, learning several folk songs to help support her smoking habit, which began when she was nine. Upon graduation from the Aden Bowman Collegiate she attended art and design school in Calgary where she began to frequent coffee houses with her acoustic blend of rock and folk music.

Joni left school a little after a year to pursue her career as a singer in Toronto. Joni became pregnant by her boyfriend from college and gave the child up for adoption in 1965. That same year she married singer Chuck Mitchell who brought her to the United States in the summer months of 1965. Unfortunately, they divorced soon after and Mitchell made her way to New York City in 1967.

While on tour in Florida, Mitchell was heard singing by vocalist David Crosby who was impressed by the young talent and took her to Los Angeles where he eventually secured a recording contract with Reprise Records for her. Her debut album Song to a Seagull was released in 1968 while her second album, Clouds was released in 1969.

Both albums helped to establish Mitchell as one of the premier vocalists from the folk-hippie generation, due in large part to her poetic story telling and high soprano vocal range. 1970s Ladies of the Canyon was her last album that featured heavy folk production and participation from members of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.

Starting with her album Blue, released in 1971, Mitchell began to exploire different guitar tunings, and voicings, to come up up with easier fingerings for her to play altered and more extended harmonic shapes. The 1970s marked a strong turning point in Mitchell’s career when she began employing jazz musicians on her recordings, and her music reflected an obvious shift towards experimental song forms, unusual vocal rhythms, and denser lyrical content. Her 1972 album Court and Spark featured jazz keyboardist Joe Sample along with guitarist Larry Carleton who were both at that time members of jazz-fusion group L.A. Express. Both had left the group by 1974 when the rest of L.A. Express backed up Mitchell for various dates in Southern California,, which culminated with the live release Miles of Aisles that same year.

Mitchell’s largest change in artistic direction occurred on The Hissing of Summer Lawns, released in 1975. It featured a much more electric but mellow-rock sound than her previous albums and even used sampled drums for the song “The Jungle Line,” which borrowed from the sounds heard on an anthropological field recording from Burundi. Mitchell next teamed up with electric bass phenom Jaco Pastorius, who provided driving bass lines and wonderfully blended harmonics to the singer’s 1976 album Hejira. The following year, as Mitchell was close to obliging her record contract with Asylum, she recorded her most explorative and jazz influenced album to date, with 1977’s Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter.

Around this time, another musical icon, bassist Charles Mingus had been introduced to the Mitchell’s music through a friend of a friend and wanted to work with Mitchell. In New York City, where Mingus was rapidly dying from Lou Gehrig’s disease, he and Mitchell worked on different material that would become Mingus, released several months after his death in 1979.

Mitchell wrote lyrics for the bassist's homage to Lester Young, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," which featured Herbie Hancock on Fender Rhodes. Mitchell assembled a stellar touring band to support Mingus. Featured were Jaco Pastorius, guitarist Pat Metheny, drummer Don Alias, keyboardist Lyle Mays, and saxophonist Michael Brecker. The genius of the band is captured on Shadows and Lights, which was recorded during the group’s September performance at the Santa Barbara County Bowl.

During the 1980s, Mitchell signed with Geffen Records, which released several albums that built on the synthesized sound heard during this time in popular music. Though the albums also feature Mitchell’s poetic, story telling and experimental guitar tunings an even livelier collaboration started with saxophonist Wayne Shorter who appeared on all of her albums from 1982’s Wild Things Run Fast through 1994’s Turbulent Indigo. Turbulent Indigo won the Grammy that year for Pop Album of the Year.

The new decade brought Mitchell back to jazz once again with 2000’s Both Sides Now, an album that explored the complexity of human relationships mostly through well-known jazz standards. Mitchell went on hiatus from the music industry in 2001 and decided to focus all of her attention to her work as a painter.

Mitchell returned to music in 2007 with the release of her Starbucks’ album Shine, her first album of all original material since 1998. Featured on the album is jazz drummer Brian Blade, who displays his diversity, playing many different styles of drumbeats throughout the album. Also, n 2007, pianist Herbie Hancock recorded River: The Joni Letters, an album dedicated to the powerful legacy of the singer’s music. The album explores the depth of Mitchell’s work with rich piano textures from Hancock and spirited drumming by Vinnie Colaiuta. Norah Jones is featured on the song “Court and Spark" and Corrine Bailey Lee on “River." Hancock's homage to Mitchell was the first jazz album to win Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards in over 40 years when it took the top prize on February 10th, 2008.

Select Discography

As Joni Mitchell

Song to a Seagull (Reprise, 1968)

Clouds (Reprise, 1969)

Ladies of the Canyon (Reprise, 1970)

Blue (Reprise, 1971)

For the Roses (Asylum, 1972)

Court and Spark (Asylum, 1974)

Miles of Aisles (Asylum, 1974)

The Hissing of Summer Lawns (Asylum, 1975)

Hejira (Asylum, 1976)

Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter (Asylum, 1977)

Mingus (Asylum, 1979)

Shadows and Lights (Asylum, 1980)

Wild Things Run Fast (Geffen, 1982)

Dog Eat Dog (Geffen, 1985)

Taming the Tiger (Reprise, 1998)

Both Sides Now (Reprise, 2000)

Contributor: Jared Pauley