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bilgewater

Joni Mitchell and the growing canon of "new standards"

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I'm eager to hear thoughts on the place of Joni Mitchell's music and influence within the decades-long movement to find new jazz vocal repertoire (or instrumentals based on vocal songs) from outside the jazz canon, notably outside the "great American songbook." 

The movement really came on my radar with the rise of Cassandra Wilson and her movement from a decade of virtuosically singing older standards along with new non-pop jazz with M-Base collective to circulating startling arrangements of "new standards" on her albums Blue Light Til Dawn (1993, including songs by Joni Mitchell,  Van Morrison, and Robert Johnson) and New Moon Daughter (1995, including songs by U2, Neil Young, and Son House) and ever after. After Cassandra, the deluge. Because she is such a refined and captivating singer, collaborates with brilliant musicians, and because she reached a big audience, the floodgates opened. 

But as the floodgates opened, to what rock-era songwriters did jazzers--esp jazz singers--turn? I'm curious if folks think there was something distinctly amenable to jazz interpretation (expanding the harmonic palette, ornamenting the melodies, introducing counter-melodies, completely changing the rhythm and groove) in Joni Mitchell's songs as compared to those she considered her songwriters inspirations and peers--notably Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen--and those who were her contemporaries or near-contemporaries as singer-songwriters (say, David Crosby, James Taylor, Carole King, or for that matter, the Beatles, British Invasion bands). 

Jazz musicians may like Joni Mitchell because the admiration is reciprocated. It's easier to like someone when they like you back, right? She has always named Miles Davis as her musical hero, her fave Miles band as the second great quintet, and her favorite album as Nefertiti. And of course she collaborated at length with Jaco Pastorius, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Brian Blade, along with Tom Scott and the LA Express. (And Hancock's 2007 album of interpretations was a watershed.)

These factors distinguish her recording career from those of Dylan, Cohen, Crosby, Taylor, King et al.  But the question is: what is about these compositions (esp. in her first recording decade) as such that speaks to some later jazz musicians (not only vocalists)? What is it about her harmonic sensibility, the character of her melodies, her phrasing, her lyrics? I'm writing a book on these and other Mitchellian topics. 

Or, perhaps, am I so lost in Mitchell-land that I've missed the forest for the trees and there is in fact a strong tradition of jazz interpretations of Dylan, Cohen, et al, in the post-Cassandra-Wilson era of "new standards"?

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Welcome to the board, and nice question. As a non-musician, I’m always interested in what makes any one song more appropriate for a jazz treatment than another. 

The only others I would add would be Radiohead and Nirvana, who seem to get a lot of non-vocal visits from the Iverson / Mehldau / Iyer crowd.

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Posted (edited)

I'm kind of intrigued by jazz artists covering Dylan.  The attraction is usually to the words of the Nobel winner, but I can see how the Americana quality in much of his music appeals to Bill Frisell, who  has covered Dylan a fair amount.  I really like his take on "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall." Then too there is the fine Dylan tribute by Jewels and Binoculars: Ships With Tattooed Sails.

 

 

Edited by Milestones

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Big fan of Cassandra, and the choice of material is part of it, but mixed feelings on this whole 'new standards' thing - I'm not sure I want a new canon or just no canon at all.  I don't really need to hear everyone and their dog doing this Joni tune and that one by Van and that other one by Bob.  I love what she did with "Last Train to Clarksville" but I'm not looking for a bunch of Boyce & Hart covers/tribute albums.  And about the only thing to be done with Joni's material from the Jaco years is to make it less interesting.  But I really don't need more obsessing over the Gershwins and Cole Porter either.

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A good composition is always welcome.

A bandwagon of neo-hipness...no thanks.

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Because the last comment moved away from the Joni Mitchell particularity, let me say that another thing that inspired me here was thinking about what gets played at jazz jam sessions.

I was in attendance at a strong jazz sessions of pros and conservatory students a few weeks ago. Lots and lots of jazz vocalists. Pretty much all of the tunes that were called by a new person--of whatever age--on the stage were written pre-1960. Occasionally there was a more obscure show tune or a Sondheim piece and the younger conservatory vocal grads passed out lead sheets to help the old-timers. 

I love "Body and Soul" and "Summertime" and "Take the A Train" as much as the next jazzer, but there's also (in my opinion) something to be said for replenishish and extending the common core, the standard repertoire, what can be "called" at a jazz session and not only get incomprehending looks and a need for lead sheets. 

This is part of the genius of that most celebrated jazz vocalist, Cecile McLorin Salvant: she builds up the standards repertoire by digging up songs that no one knows or does by the likes of Jelly Roll Morton (that very long prison song she famously did at Lincoln Center) or bringing back to prominence ancient tunes like "Nobody" (identified with Bert Walker c 1910). 

 

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Just make the music. "Standards" is a marketing concept, not a musical one. Thinking anything else just shows the effect of marketing brainwashing programming. For that matter, these days, so is "jazz". Fuck Standards, fuck Jazz, like the man said, let MY children hear MUSIC.

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Posted (edited)

15 hours ago, bilgewater said:

I was in attendance at a strong jazz sessions of pros and conservatory students a few weeks ago. Lots and lots of jazz vocalists. Pretty much all of the tunes that were called by a new person--of whatever age--on the stage were written pre-1960.

I can't find the thread now, but years ago I started a thread in the Musicians Forum essentially asking the question, what is the most recent jazz or pop tune that has become a standard in the way that "Stella by Starlight" or "How High the Moon" have.

The scenario I presented was one in which five professional jazz musicians who had never met found themselves together on the bandstand.  What tunes could any of them call that you could be 99.9% sure they would all know?  For the purposes of the discussion, we discounted songs like "New York, New York," "Celebrate," and "Lady in Red" that they all would have had to have learned for wedding gigs, but probably would never dream of calling on their own gigs. 

I believe the consensus was that the 1960s were the last fairly safe decade for an across-the-board, known-by-all standard, and if I remember correctly, JSngry indicated that some 1970s Stevie Wonder and Chick Corea songs come close to being that universally known and played.  (Correct me if I'm wrong, Jsngry.)

I agree with JSngry about standards being a "marketing concept" to a degree, but the concept appears in the real world if you find yourself at a gig with new people, and you have to make music to collect a paycheck.  There is a cycle that occurs in which musicians learn the tunes that others know. The proliferation of fake books - a necessary evil in some situations - has only reinforced this cycle.

The bigger question is why there are no longer any new jazz or pop tunes that all jazz musicians feel compelled to learn.

Edited by Teasing the Korean

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Posted (edited)

Some Stevie Wonder tunes are on their way to becoming jazz standards. The first I remember is the excellent "Maybe your Baby" done by Gary Bartz. This century SFJazz Collective have done two releases (a live concert compilation and a studio session) dedicated to his tunes. And I know there are more interpretations.

Edited by jazzbo

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"Wynton" (in quotes) redefined what was and was not acceptable considerations and parameters for "jazz", including source materials. The rebels disregard(ed), but if you're talking about a lot of people at a "jam session" looking to display "jazz cred"...that is usually not the place to look for rebels.

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The "rebels" are not playing jazz.  They are playing culturally relevant music.  Jazz is finished.

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Posted (edited)

IMHO the relationship between jazz and popular music that created the body of work we called “standards” doesn’t really exist anymore, for better or worse.  Pop music is more fragmented; jazz is more fragmented and less “culturally relevant”.

I do think the fact that certain post-1970 popular music has gained some traction among jazz musicians is interesting and worth talking about, but not the same thing.  IMHO contemporary pop music rhythms and recording techniques entering the jazz world are maybe more significant than the songwriting.

Edited by Guy Berger

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13 minutes ago, Guy Berger said:

IMHO the relationship between jazz and popular music that created the body of work we called “standards” doesn’t really exist anymore, for better or worse.  Pop music is more fragmented; jazz is more fragmented and less “culturally relevant”.

I do think the fact that certain post-1970 popular music has gained some traction among jazz musicians is interesting and worth talking about, but not the same thing.  IMHO contemporary pop music rhythms and recording techniques entering the jazz world are maybe more significant than the songwriting.

When the expanded Erroll Garner Concert by the Sea was released, we discussed the connections between jazz, pop, and "showbiz" that existed at that time.  Those connections are long gone.  

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Posted (edited)

1 hour ago, Guy Berger said:

 

I do think the fact that certain post-1970 popular music has gained some traction among jazz musicians is interesting and worth talking about....  IMHO contemporary pop music rhythms and recording techniques entering the jazz world are maybe more significant than the songwriting.

I would agree on the crucial significance of pop music rhythms over that of verse-chorus-bridge-style pop songs. This has been important since at least the late Sixties (cue up the rock shuffle on Miles Davis' Jack Johnson) and then all kinds of important jazz-rock-funk fusion headlined by his (former) sidemen in the 1970. That seems beyond debate as a descriptive matter. 

Of course hip hop (broadly understood) is the central popular music of our age and it has had an appropriately profound effect--in certain corners--on contemporary jazz rhythms, production styles (sampling), song form itself. For me, the likes of Jason Moran, Karriem Riggins, the jazz-r&b Soulquarian connection, Robert Glasper are crucial here as innovators. We needn't linger too long over Wynton Marsalis' on-brand denunciation of rap as "ghetto minstrelsy." 

Because I have Joni Mitchell's music on my mind, her songs often seem an especially friendly carrier for the modal jazz heritage--as suggested by Herbie Hancock's Mitchell album. And that modal heritage--in the sense of a friendliness toward hovering 11th chords, stacked chords, evasion of harmonic resolution, lots of sus chords, non-diatonic melodies--can then be spliced on top of post-rock beats. That's kind of what I hear when the likes of Brad Mehldau and Robert Glasper both take on Radiohead songs with their simple melodies and haunting shifting harmonies. 

Glasper covers Radiohead with beat box accompaniment.

 

Mehldau trio does Radiohead. Cecile McLorin Salvant sings The Beatles.

 

So I wonder at what point, if ever, one will go to a jazz jam session and someone will call...

"St. Thomas" with heavy calypso; everybody getting happy...

"Edith and the Kingpin" by Joni Mitchell; slow and straight; everybody getting real...

and then "Ma Vie En Rose" as a bossa nova; remembering the legends...

and then "Round Midnight,"  like Carmen McRae; saluting royalty...

and then "Red Clay," with Hubbardian fire; modality with blues power...

and then "Almost Like Being in Love," swinging Nat King Cole version; was it really easier to be in love then?...

and then "Lush Life," at a Shirley Horn dirge tempo... ok, maybe not...

and then ""Love's in Need of Love Today" straight to bring on the tears, I must change my life...

and then "Yardbird Suite," to remind us of what this music's Mozart gave the world...

and then "Exit Music" by Radiohead...

and then "Muskrat Ramble," jail-breaking the whole darn carceral system after first asking: "does anyone remember laughter?"

don't forget to tip your servers!

Edited by bilgewater

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That's what record collections are for.

Jam sessions are for getting high, bruising muscles, and drawing blood, if only your own.

If there's a paid audience, or even a public one, it's not really a jam session, it some place that either wouldn't/couldn't pay a band, and all that comes with that, like open mike night at a suburban comedy club. Or karaoke.

I wish Glasper's output was as invigorating as his stated intentions. Either he's bullshitting or else something's getting lost on the way to the record.

This whole thing is, like, just do it, right? And do it well enough that there's no question that it's right. And then, don't go and fuck up, because the safety net for that is a way lot less than it used to be. Nooses are everywhere, traps, so keep it real, keep it strong, and everybody just stop asking permission, just do it.

Is that asking a lot! Maybe, but not nearly as much as just half-ass tippy-toeing and asking when people are gonna be ok with it. 

To the original point - did Joni Mitchell tippy-toe?

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Joni Mitchell's great. No pontificating about details from me.:ph34r:

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One other observation is that Joni Mitchell’s best and most popular music is closer timewise to the classic standards era than to our present day.  Not really “new”!

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32 minutes ago, JSngry said:

I wish Glasper's output was as invigorating as his stated intentions. Either he's bullshitting or else something's getting lost on the way to the record.

This, X100.  Joni strikes me as far too quirky to be a useful source of new standards, at least in a pseudo-jam session public performance context..  You either want to hear her, or you don't want to hear those tunes at all.  Once in awhile I hear some 'jazz' jamming on a tune significantly less than 50 years old; BUT even then, I don't want to hear 6 others try it.  Even the '60s tunes I think work as jazz, I'm good with maybe the original and 2 other takes, not 10 or 12 like Stardust or Summertime.

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23 minutes ago, Guy Berger said:

One other observation is that Joni Mitchell’s best and most popular music is closer timewise to the classic standards era than to our present day.  Not really “new”!

 

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5 hours ago, jazzbo said:

Some Stevie Wonder tunes are on their way to becoming jazz standards. The first I remember is the excellent "Maybe your Baby" done by Gary Bartz. This century SFJazz Collective have done two releases (a live concert compilation and a studio session) dedicated to his tunes. And I know there are more interpretations.

Lots of good jazz covers from the great Innervisions album.  

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Give this one a try.

411AWY466KL.jpg

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Posted (edited)

6 hours ago, jazzbo said:

Some Stevie Wonder tunes are on their way to becoming jazz standards. The first I remember is the excellent "Maybe your Baby" done by Gary Bartz. This century SFJazz Collective have done two releases (a live concert compilation and a studio session) dedicated to his tunes. And I know there are more interpretations.

Like this

Yesterdays New Quintet: Stevie, Vol. 1 Album Review | Pitchfork

from 2000-2001, in which Madlib plays versions of Wonder tracks. Here is a review.

Edited by Bluesnik

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Or, you know, look forward, not to songs of jam sessions, but to compositions.

or songs

or not.

Or hell, use that Chris Potter guy, he's popular today, right? Like this:

 

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40 minutes ago, JSngry said:

Or, you know, look forward, not to songs of jam sessions, but to compositions.

Completely agree!  IF you have the luxury of working things out in advance of the gig.  Not all gigs work that way, as you well know.

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god forbid that people should dance...

i mean, my god, does anybody NOT know this song? So why not jam on it? Maybe then you can get enough people in the house drinking enough to slate their thirst from actually DOING something to maybe, like, you know, get a whole band paid instead of some raggedyass "jam session".

People just done already lost what it means to play music. Or to even be in the room with it.

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