CD review

Colin Steele Quartet – “Joni”

Colin Steele Quartet – Joni
(Marina Records. CD Review by John Bungey)

“Jazz interpretations of the Joni Mitchell Songbook,” announces the cover. With the high priestess of North American singer-songwriting you’re halfway there already. Jazz has long been a potent shade in her musical palette. Jaco Pastorius, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Pat Metheny all helped her expand far beyond a strummed acoustic guitar. In glummer moments Mitchell has complained that her jazz-rooted Mingus album of 1979 damaged her commercial clout in pop-loving America. Incidentally, you can find some great outtakes from her Charles Mingus collaboration on YouTube. And if anyone knows where to find the recordings of the exploratory sessions that she organised with Tony Williams, John McLaughlin et al., do let me know.

Anyway, Colin Steele, the Scottish trumpeter with the muted, cool-school style last heard covering Glasgow band the Pearlfishers, has the wind behind him when he turns his horn to nine Mitchell songs of love and angst – from Both Sides Now to Hejira. He’s a restrained improviser who never strays too far from the shape of the songs, with a tone that recalls Miles Davis’s Time After Time. (There is nothing as remotely radical as Brad Mehldau taking Mitchell’s delicate Roses Blue apart and reinventing it as a jazz-Rachmaninov epic on his Live in Tokyo album.)

Steele’s quartet features Calum Gourlay on double bass, Alyn Cosker on drums and pianist Dave Milligan, who also arranged the album. The opening Blue introduces a tasteful team utterly simpatico with the project. There are surprises though: Both Sides Now, that meditation on the ambiguity of passing cumulonimbus, builds to a muscular workout; Tin Angel is a striking, ECM-ish trumpet-bass duet. Milligan veers from delicate filigree to big splashy, gospel-tinged chords and, after Steele has done the legwork of stating the melody, often steals the show. His solo on River over shimmering cymbal work is magical, as is his impassioned crescendo on Hejira.

The leader plays with a mute throughout – for the sake of variety, he could have dropped it for, say, the upbeat California. But this is a satisfying project overall, a little cautious perhaps, but still opening new windows on some classic tunes. It could have been trumpet karaoke but Joni is much more than that.

Joni Mitchell is 76 now and very much retired at her estate in British Columbia; hope someone has sent her a copy.

LINK: Marina Records website

Categories: CD review

3 replies »

  1. ‘Jaco Pastorius, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Pat Metheny all helped her expand far beyond a strummed acoustic guitar’.

    That goes without saying but Joni Mitchell expanded her own abilities to go way ‘beyond a strummed acoustic guitar’ player and from an early age. A hugely influential writer and musician who drew in the likes of these great jazz musicians as much as she drew from them. Her tuning patterns and finger work, her piano playing and dulcimer inclusion during the earlier days exemplified a truly gifted musician who matched the craft of words with a wide affinity for the power of sounds. One of my personal favourites is River – The Joni Letters with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Dave Holland amongst others with many vocalists.

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  2. Mike Brecker played with her and recorded and played live the great tune “the dry cleaner from Des Moines”; and she has a true reverence for Charles Mingus. Such an artist!

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