Hollywood Bowl concert focuses on Joni Mitchell’s jazz side

‘She’s got a special way,’ Herbie Hancock says of the singer-songwriter. He’s on the ‘Joni’s Jazz’ bill with Wayne Shorter, Kurt Elling and many others.
An eclectic group will assemble onstage Wednesday night at the Hollywood Bowl to riff on the work of Joni Mitchell. Oddly, one thing many of these artists — who range from jazz to folk to indie rock — have in common is that they arrived late to the music of the flaxen-haired troubadour.

“I didn’t really pay much attention to anyone from rock ‘n’ roll, pop, folk, once I started to play jazz,” says Herbie Hancock, Los Angeles Philharmonic creative chair for jazz, who was classically trained before taking up jazz piano. “I was also very into instrumental music — I didn’t pay much attention to lyrics.”

Saxophonist Wayne Shorter, similarly, says he was “not a huge listener” of Mitchell’s music in her breakthrough period in the late ’60s and early ’70s. And alt-rock songstress Aimee Mann admits she goes “not very far back” with Mitchell. “My exposure to music was pretty random,” she says. “A baby sitter turned me on to Neil Young. When Joni was in her heyday, I wasn’t listening to the radio yet.”

But like anyone who’s been born again, each of these latecomers also has a conversion story. In the case of Hancock, who was eventually steered to popular music by his employer, Miles Davis, he got a call to join her for a session in 1979. “And I got a chance to see what a great musician she was,” he says. “Eventually I began to listen to her lyrics.”

He was immediately struck by her distinctive musicality. “She’s got a special way; she hears things that go well beyond mainstream pop harmony,” Hancock says. (He refers to the way she alters standard tuning of her strings to change pitch in a way that allows her, like musicians such as Robert Johnson and Keith Richards, to get unusual harmonies.) “She has to tune her guitar differently for every song — she’s hearing things she can’t get with standard tuning.”

Shorter, for his part, remembers being introduced to the singer-songwriter while walking down Sunset Boulevard to see a show at the Roxy in the late ’70s. Either Clive Davis or Miles Davis introduced them; he can’t recall.

What the saxophonist does remember is that “talking to her, it seemed like she had the fighting spirit.” Though he admired what he knew of her music, it was the force of her vision and her defiance of the record business that attracted him the most. “So it’s more about going against the grain. I like to be with fighters — someone who won’t be steered. She stayed on her path.”

1970s time frame

Wednesday’s “Joni’s Jazz” concert will concentrate on the mid-to-late ’70s, what Hancock calls “the time she started to make the transition, incorporating jazz artists and jazz ideas into her band.” Perhaps appropriate for an elusive artist who draws from the folk, rock, blues and jazz traditions without being entirely comfortable in any of them, Mitchell, 67, whose last record, “Shine,” came out in 2007, is not scheduled to appear.

One of those jazz-inflected records — “Mingus,” the 1979 tribute to the great jazz bassist and bandleader who died a few months before its release — was quite explicitly a jazz album. Another, 1975’s daring and idiosyncratic “The Hissing of Summer Lawns,” which employs a Moog synthesizer and African rhythms, will be performed in its entirety.

By the time Mitchell, who was born in western Canada in 1943 and later moved to L.A., began to record these jazz-accented records, she’d become a sensation with the spare, deeply internal album “Blue” and poetic hits like “California,” “Both Sides Now” and “Woodstock.”

Her turn to jazz — she employed players such as Shorter, Hancock and bassist Jaco Pastorius — was in some ways a return to roots. “I found out later,” says Hancock, “that Joni’s listening background was in jazz — she heard Billie Holiday at 9 years old. She heard jazz around the house.” Hancock recalls her telling him that she broke in through folk music because she wanted a forum for her poetry and in 1960s Canada “the folk scene was a way in.”

Jazz vocalist Kurt Elling, who will sing several of her songs, including “Black Crow” and “Edith and the Kingpin,” says that he immediately thought of Mitchell as a jazz artist of sorts when he first heard her. And not just on her jazz albums.

“I thought of her as someone fantastically hip, from a jazz point of view,” he says. “At several points in her career, she’s told her stories from an improvisation standpoint.” Her whole career, he says, has been “beyond genre,” and “she’s now more of a jazz singer” than she was on those ’70s records.

Shorter says Mitchell’s style of recording has a lot to do with her work as a painter; she’s always trying for new and startling colors. She’s been in the spirit of jazz, he says, for much of her career. “Jazz is supposed to be open,” he says. “On the road to discovery. That’s what Joni is talking about.”

The connection between jazz and Mitchell’s entire career was made explicit in 2007 when Hancock released “River: The Joni Letters,” an album festooned with guest stars including Leonard Cohen, Norah Jones and Mitchell herself that was both a critical and popular success. It also was the first jazz recording in more than 40 years to take the best album Grammy.

Eclectic lineup

Wednesday’s concert comes in some ways out of Hancock’s album, though the personnel is a bit different. The Bowl show will include R&B singer Chaka Khan, jazz crooner Cassandra Wilson and Irish folk-rock singer Glen Hansard, who, as half of the Swell Season, made a riveting Bowl appearance last summer. (Drummer Brian Blade and pianist Jon Cowherd will handle the arrangements with an ensemble including such stalwarts as Tom Scott and Mark Isham.)

With such an odd lineup — and such a stubbornly individual artist — it’s anybody’s guess what this will be like. “I think they’ll be pretty faithful to the arrangements of the record,” Mann says. “I don’t think anybody is going to bust out a metal jam.”

But Mann says “it’s pretty impossible” to sing like Joni Mitchell. “All her songs I’ve practiced, I’ve had to take down at least a third.” In some cases, Mann, who will interpret the title tracks from “Court and Spark” and “Hissing,” moved the songs into “keys that are impossible to play saxophone over. Let’s hope for the best.”

Elling emphasizes that in the spirit of jazz, the concert needs to take the music somewhere. “Otherwise,” he says, “you might as well stay home and spin the records.”