The Swinging of the Summer Lawns (July 1, 1999)

The Swinging of the Summer Lawns (July 1, 1999)

by Lara Pellegrinelli
copyright © 1999 Lara Pellegrinelli

Music from Joni Mitchell's so-called jazz period, which cost her many followers in the mid- and late '70s, was embraced enthusiastically last Thursday (June) at Central Park's SummerStage. Well, it just goes to show, everything is clearer in hindsight. The albums, beginning with Court and Spark through Mingus were once condemned as radical departures from Mitchell's earlier style. Here they formed the basis for a lengthy tribute, and Hejira was performed in its entirety.

With a humble Mitchell seated in the front row and grudging cooperation from a moody sky, a dozen singers took turns joining a house band of mighty proportions. Arrangements by guitarist Vernon Reid tweaked originals, adding some '90s freshness through moderate doses of funk, jazz, and ska flavoring. Saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, bass clarinetist Don Byron, cornetist Graham Haynes, multi-instrumentalist Doug Weiselman and percussionist Mino Cinelu created graceful trimmings historically delegated to jazz icons like Wayne Shorter and Don Alias. Bassist Matt Garrison, facing a near impossible task, amply filled the gargantuan shoes left by Jaco Pastorius.

Among the singers, who represented all walks of musical life, zany diva Chaka Khan ruled the audience. Khan, an original cast member on Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, respectfully abandoned Mitchell's melodies for wildly ecstatic r&b stylings, bringing the crowd to its feet. "The Jungle Line," originally based on sampled Burundian drumming, benefited from the dynamic Pygmy-like ululations of Dean Bowman and Carl Hancock Rux, men who brought the jungle out in the city. Toshi Reagon also impressed with Joni-inflected renditions of "Trouble Child" and "Black Crow."

Unfortunately, the vocal performances were uneven; not everyone passed muster with the difficult, idiosyncratic material. Barely breathing, Duncan Sheik fell victim to flatness, and Jane Siberry appeared embarrassingly unprepared. PM Dawn's Prince Be sang sensitively, but could not logically carry off "Song for Sharon" with its fill of wedding dress imagery.

A surprise encore brought out jazz veterans Jon Hendricks and Annie Ross for the playfully rendered "Twisted" and "Jumpin' at the Woodside," old favorites of the girl from Saskatoon. With everyone on stage for the finale, Mitchell allowed herself to be coaxed towards the spotlight, ironically forgetting the lyrics to "Help Me." It didn't matter. Basking in the glow of hard earned recognition, she looked as though she'd finally tamed the tiger.

Lara Pellegrinelli (, a new member of the JJA and frequent contributor to Jazziz, is completing her doctoral dissertation on correlations between vocal and instrumental jazz.

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