For the LJN “10 Tracks I Can’t Do Without” series, in which jazz musicians do a deep (and entirely personal and selective) dive into the music of their idols, singer-songwriter Tara Minton picks some of the songs by Joni Mitchell that have had the most lasting impact:
Joni Mitchell‘s career has spanned more than five decades. In 2002 she received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 44th Annual Grammy Awards for her canon of over 200 songs that have touched the lives of millions around the globe with their tender and raw insights into the human condition. Joni Mitchell is also one of the most covered artists of all time. Certainly, for me, Joni’s songs are the soundtrack to my own soul. She is one of the rare songwriters who walks freely between the worlds of folk, pop and jazz and has worked with some of the true giants of the jazz world, including Herbie Hancock, Charles Mingus, Jaco Pastorius, Pat Metheny, Wayne Shorter, Lyle Mays and Peter Erskine.
Joni’s expression is not restricted to words and music alone – she painted the majority of her album covers. In fact, she describes herself as a “painter derailed by circumstance”. Her album covers were the inspiration for my own collaborations with visual artists over the years, just as her experimentation with song structure, form and subject matter continue to inform my own writing. If one wants an education in jazz, they listen to the masters – Parker, Young, Monk, Coltrane. For an education in songwriting, I can think of none higher than marinading in the full back catalogue of Joni Mitchell’s recordings – while you’re there, you will most certainly also learn about yourself.
1. ‘The Last Time I saw Richard’ from Blue (1971)
My housemate, Jo, gave me a copy of Blue in 2007. I’d been dumped and had newly decided to become a songwriter. Sitting cross legged on my bed listening to Blue opened a window in my soul. ‘The Last time I Saw Richard’ is a masterful end to the album – after setting the scene with two rather naive conversational verses, Joni capitulates in the final verse singing “all good dreamers pass this way some day, hidin’ behind bottles in dark cafes.” This sudden gear change into vulnerability toppled me! What a way to acknowledge the quotidian pain of loss, and the hope that gently follows. “Only a phase, these dark cafe days…”
2. ‘Edith and The Kingpin’ from The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975)
Many of the Joni compositions I love are simply three verses that tell a story. ‘Edith and The Kingpin’ is one – a cutting commentary on the superficial world of wealth and power that casts women as conquests to be won, pitted against each other as objects of desire. It’s a scathing look at the underbelly of high society and I love it! Joni’s live band is insane: Pat Metheny, Jaco Pastorius, Lyle Mays and Don Alias. So heavy.
3. ‘Coyote’ from Hejira (1976)
I discovered this song in my early 20s when I was railing against the gendered double standards for sexual expression. Joni sings “Coyote’s in the coffee shop. He’s staring a hole in his scrambled eggs. He picks up my scent on his fingers while he’s watching the waitresses’ legs.” What a way to describe a player. One night, watching ‘The Last Waltz’, an Irish folk-singer friend said “Joni’s a slag.” Boy did he get an earful!
4. ‘Car On A Hill’ from Court and Spark (1974)
The song for anyone who’s been stood up. The opening groove with Tom Scott’s sax riff creates a feeling of anticipation. The song is ABA form with a strange and unusual B section that breaks the mood with flowing piano moving through multiple time signatures with layered vocals, chimes and flutes. It’s like stepping into a daydream of denial, before the sound of a horn shatters the vision and we’re back, waiting anxiously for his car on the hill…
5. ‘For Free’ from Ladies of the Canyon (1970)
This is Joni’s ode to buskers: “Across the street he stood and he played real good on his clarinet for free.” Delightfully named clarinetist, Paul Horn plays a jaunty New Orleans style solo over the outro. I love how it clashes with Joni’s piano waltz, invoking the competing soundscapes of bustling New York. I always felt Tom Waits was the master of capturing time and place in song, but Joni really nails it with this one.
6. ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ from Mingus (1979)
Joni flirted with jazz influences in her records leading up to Mingus, but this was the moment when she dove in headlong. I adore this take on Mingus’ strange and wonderful ode to Lester Young. It begins with a free intro between bass and soprano saxophone (Jaco Pastorius and Wayne Shorter no less) with Peter Erskine whispering time. Herbie’s electric piano creeps in and Joni sings the head in her distinctive soprano, followed by her famous vocalese to John Handy’s original sax solo on the 1959 record, Mingus’ “Ah Um.” This collaboration was Mingus’ last recording before he died – I cherish it as a gift from two misunderstood, brilliant artists.
7. ‘Chelsea Morning’ from Clouds (1969)
This song is from Joni’s second album, Clouds. I am not a morning person, but ‘Chelsea Morning’ is so infectiously upbeat and optimistic, I almost believe I could be. I love returning to these earlier albums when Joni was still honing her mastery of metaphor – “the first thing that I heard was a song outside my window and the traffic wrote the words.” I’d have been delighted to write a line like that at twenty-five years old.
8. ‘The Jungle Line’ from River: The Joni Letters (2007)
Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen were life-long friends. I love this straight up performance of The Jungle Line – Joni’s beat poem from The Hissing of Summer Lawns inspired by a Henri Rousseau painting. Leonard Cohen’s delivery is like a solemn offering – a nod of respect from one great poet to another. Herbie Hancock’s playing is masterful. You can hear him responding to the lyrics whilst referencing the layered riffs from Joni’s original recording. It’s a stunning duet.
9. ‘Woodstock’ from Ladies of the Canyon (1970)
For me, this piece is a masterclass in diatonic melody writing. The song is just two chords, but Joni’s vocal melody is so unexpected and engaging; I’m hypnotised. Vince Mendoza won a Grammy for his orchestral arrangement of ‘Woodstock’ in Travelogue (2022), but I love this stripped back version of Joni accompanying herself on keyboard with tasteful quartal voicings. It just confirms that if a song is well written, it will come alive with just one voice and one instrument.
10. ‘Both Sides Now’ from Both Sides Now (2000)
Joni wrote this song when she was just 23 years old. For me, it sits alongside Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” as a rare work of true insight into the human soul. Revisiting the song at age 57, Joni brings the weight of her life’s experience to her vocal delivery – it reduces me to tears every time. Vince Mendoza’s orchestral arrangement is truly inspired and some beloved British legends feature on the record, including Stan Sulzmann and Skaila Kanga.
Categories: 10 Tracks I Can't Do Without