Going into Wednesday's show at the Hollywood Bowl exploring the meeting point between jazz and Joni Mitchell's recordings between 1974 and 1979, it was hard to escape the idea that both sides of the evening could be considered acquired tastes, at least as far as today's mainstream is concerned.
Although the genius inherent to both is beyond questioning, Mitchell's singular voice and elliptical way with a song take time to absorb, and even her most ardent fans might hesitate to recommend her most jazz-inflected recordings from the late '70s to neophytes. Featuring collaborations with Jaco Pastorius, Wayne Shorter and even an ALS-ravaged Charles Mingus, these records were a long way from the sunny canyon-folk of "Big Yellow Taxi."
But powered by an all-star cast of musicians led by co-arranger Brian Blade at the drums, the evening worked, often breathtakingly well. Introduced by the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Creative Chair for Jazz Herbie Hancock as a reprise of a 1999 Mitchell-themed jazz concert in New York's Central Park, the Bowl version upped the ante with appearances by Shorter, Hancock and a rotating cast of vocalists with the unenviable task of putting their own stamp on Mitchell's signature vocal melodies.
With such diverse elements, it was striking how Mitchell's songs could evolve in new contexts, particularly from the perspective of the lyrics, which stood in greater relief outside of Mitchell's acrobatic singing style. The Frames' Glen Hansard added a gruff urgency to the jangly "Coyote," belting out the song's loping references to lines on the freeway as if his life depended upon it. Backing him on soprano saxophone, Shorter stayed along the fringes before digging deep into a twisting solo with Blade's drums pushing behind him.
With a voice like fine-grained sandpaper, Aimee Mann delivered more direct if slightly darker runs through "Court and Spark" and "Free Man in Paris," and Cassandra Wilson's lush, smoldering tone added a new layers of regret to "Hejira," turning the deep blue lyric "There's comfort in melancholy" into something like a mission statement. Taken out of the production and instrumental flourishes of the original time that colored some of Mitchell's songs with Moog, reverb-heavy guitar and electric piano, the music took on a new life.
Interjecting a touch of brassy soul into the evening, Chaka Khan became a crowd favorite with rollicking turns at "People's Parties" and "A Strange Boy," which rode Greg Leisz's pedal steel into dusty Americana-jazz not unlike something from Bill Frisell's usual neighborhood. Kurt Elling's crisp, jazz-tuned vocals occasionally clashed with the night's more atmospheric turns such as on the world-beat stomp of "The Jungle Line," but a playful nod to the Beatles midway through "Black Crow" meshed beautifully, and his swinging, rapid-fire cadence through "The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines" solidified the original's big band impulses.
Given a track record with Mitchell's songbook that includes the Grammy-winning "River: The Joni Letters," maybe it's fitting that Hancock was at the center of one of the evening's finest moments. With Mann weaving through the languid title track from "The Hissing of Summer Lawns" midway through the second set's performance of the whole "Summer Lawns" album, Hancock framed her with expressive runs up and down the keyboard before taking an extended, off-center solo full of chunky chords as Mann lingered near the horn section of Mark Isham and Tom Scott.
As the song finished, Mann and Hancock shared an embrace behind the piano as Hansard passed them on the way to the stage, pausing to touch Hancock's shoulder on the way. "I think we all need to take five minutes after that," Hansard said. Luckily, there was more to come.