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A project of Jazz Appreciation Month, KNKX and Jazz24 celebrate highly regarded jazz creators who continue to inspire.

Jazz made its mark on Joni Mitchell and she's returned the favor

Joni Mitchell arrives at the 31st annual MusiCares Person of the Year benefit gala in honoring her on Friday, April 1, 2022, at the MGM Grand Conference Center in Las Vegas.
Chris Pizzello
Joni Mitchell arrives at the 31st annual MusiCares Person of the Year benefit gala in honoring her on Friday, April 1, 2022, at the MGM Grand Conference Center in Las Vegas.

Singer, songwriter and musician Joni Mitchell is well known as an artist who first made a name for herself in the '70s as part of the growing folk scene. But from the very early part of her recording career, jazz musicians and jazz influences have been a part of her music.

After the early years of performing in her hometown of Saskatchewan and then Toronto folk scene, Mitchell made her way to the famed California neighborhood of Laurel Canyon. In the heady days of the early '70s singer-songwriter scene, she was hanging out with other songwriters like Leonard Cohen, Graham Nash, Judy Collins and Joan Baez.

By her third album release, Ladies of the Canyon, in 1970 she prominently featured the world and jazz artist Paul Horn. With 1972’s For the Roses, she included jazz saxophonist Tom Scott and multi-instrumentalist Wilton Felder on bass. When For the Roses was added to the Library of Congress National Recording Registry, fellow singer Shawn Colvin wrote that the record was “Mitchell’s first overt foray into jazz…”

Later Mitchell would become known for collaborations, tours and recordings with Pat Metheny, Jaco Pastorious, Joe Sample, Larry Carlton, Bud Shank, Alex Acuna, Herbie Hancock, and Peter Erskine.

Mitchell’s work with legendary saxophonist Wayne Shorter deserves a bit of additional attention as a strong working relationship. The first album that featured Shorter was Mitchell’s Don Juans’ Reckless Daughter in 1977. Shorter then appeared on every one of the next nine Joni Mitchell albums.

Mingus was the album that brought her love of jazz to the forefront. The recording from 1979 was a collaboration between Mitchell and one of the most original composers and bass players in jazz, Charles Mingus.

There were three songs on Mingus written by Mingus for Mitchell. Mingus ended up being Mingus' last recording, but not as the featured bassist on the album. Pastorious, who collaborated with Mitchell on multiple albums, was featured on that instrument. However, Mingus' voice is featured on five short, spoken word tracks.

Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters may be Mitchell's most well-known collaboration. The Hancock album was released in 2007 and featured Mitchell's compositions performed by various vocalists, including Mitchell herself. It won Hancock two Grammy nods. River, won the 2008 Album of the Year Grammy and Best Contemporary Jazz Album making it only the second time in Grammy history that a jazz album won both awards.

Had Mitchell been writing in today’s social commentary environment, her laments about love and love lost would have likely created deep speculation concerning the focus of that heart break. Her high profile relationships with Graham Nash, James Taylor, and Leonard Cohen are well-documented. As for Cohen, it is said, he was the inspiration for her song “A Case of You.”

The impact of her writing style, vocal phrasing and unique role as a strong woman singer-songwriter have made her a unique and original artist. A 1973 New York Times article sums up her voice, both literally and figuratively:

“Never does Mitchell voice a thought or feeling commonly. She’s a songwriter and singer of genius who can’t help but make us feel we are not alone.”
Copyright 2024 KNKX Public Radio. To see more, visit KNKX Public Radio.

Carol Handley joined KNKX in 2018 as Director of Music Programming for KNKX and Jazz24. Previously, she has held positions including General Manager, Program Director, Music Director and On-Air host at several stations in the Northwest presenting traditional, progressive and contemporary styles of Jazz and roots music. In the early part of her broadcasting career she was a host at the station formerly known as KPLU.