Debra Mann – Full Circle: The Music of Joni Mitchell [TrackList follows] – Whaling City Sound [dist. by NAXOS] WCS 109 64:55 [8/24/18] ****:

Anyone who’s spent time listening to Joni Mitchell’s catalog understands that jazz has inflected her music. As far back as 1972’s For the Roses LP, Mitchell began incorporating jazzier elements into her material when she worked with saxophonist Tom Scott and Crusaders bassist Wilton Felder. Mitchell’s jazz pursuits hit an apogee with 1979’s Mingus, her homage to and collaboration with Charles Mingus. Over the decades many jazz artists have recorded Mitchell’s compositions, notably Herbie Hancock with his 2007 endeavor, River: The Joni Letters and Peter Herbert’s 2012 all-Mitchell project, Joni. Fred Hersch, Keith Jarrett, Diana Krall, Brad Mehldau, Danilo Pérez, Joshua Redman, Dianne Reeves, Jamie Saft, and Cassandra Wilson have all done Mitchell tunes as well. The latest Mitchell-related jazz record is singer/pianist Debra Mann’s mostly up-swinging, 64-minute Full Circle: The Music of Joni Mitchell.

Mann states in the liner notes booklet that choosing Mitchell was easy, “She was the voice of my youth. She gave utterance to things that I felt but didn’t have words for.” Mann initially put some of Mitchell’s songs into her live shows. The response was positive. Eventually the Mitchell interpretations turned into something bigger, “It started out as an idea to do a tribute concert featuring Joni’s music,” Mann says, “It was just going to be a one-off thing. So, we did this concert and it was really well received. And it just kind of took off from there.” The 12 tracks on Full Circle comprise music from Mitchell’s 1969 Clouds LP to 1982’s Wild Things Run Fast.

Mann’s quintet contains tenor saxophonist Dino Govoni (who is part of Mann’s regular quartet as well as the Dave Zinno Group); guitarist Jay Azzolina (he’s been a recurring accompanist for singers Michael Franks, Donna Summer, Rickie Lee Jones and Sheila Jordan); bassist Dave Zinno (who’s previously recorded with Govoni, partnered with Scott Hamilton and Adam Nussbaum, and backed Ben Vereen); and drummer Marty Richards (his background includes a 10-year stint in the Gary Burton Quintet). There are also a couple of guests on a few selections.

Portrait Joni Mitchell, 1974

Joni Mitchell

Mann admits, “I was looking for songs where I could change things up.” Most songs retain a familiar melodic line but sometimes deviate from Mitchell’s arrangements. Throughout, Mann echoes Mitchell’s vocal phrasing and the way Mitchell shaped her notes to fit the changing melodies. This vocal approach furthers the overall Mitchell-esque tone. Opener “Black Crow” (from Mitchell’s 1976 effort Hejira) has an insistent and fast-flowing confidence highlighted by Govoni’s sax solo which evokes Michael Brecker, and Azzolina’s searing electric guitar improvisation. The finger-popping “Be Cool” (from Mitchell’s 1982 offering, Wild Things Run Fast) has an amiable, mid-tempo groove accentuated by Govoni’s expressive sax. Mann applies a warm, samba ambiance on “Both Sides Now” (Mitchell’s big hit from her 1969 LP, Clouds). Mann provides a bossa nova shading to “A Case of You” (about Mitchell’s then-relationship with James Taylor; the tune is from 1971’s Blue). Mann’s convivial arrangement for “A Case of You” is underscored by guest percussionist Jerry Leake’s percolating rhythms, Azzolina’s acoustic guitar lines; and Govoni’s tender flute. Mann doesn’t shift too much from what Mitchell did on the character study, “Dry Cleaner from Des Moines,” one of two tracks from 1979’s Mingus. “Dry Cleaner from Des Moines” has a grooving foundation; and Govoni and Mann escalate the cheerful cadence with their solo moments. “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” (music by Mingus; lyrics by Mitchell) also upholds what Mitchell created, although there is some reharmonization and differences in soloing.

Some interpretations range far from the source material, such as the fusion-slanted “Woodstock,” where Azzolina commences with a funky guitar intro and later enters jazz-rock territory with a solo break. Govoni adds another prominent sax solo during “Woodstock.” There is one cut which Mitchell fans may not immediately recognize. The seven-minute ballad “Urge for Going” was the B-side for Mitchell’s 1972 smash, “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio.” It was reissued on Mitchell’s 1996 compilation, Hits. “Urge for Going” has Leake’s percussive contributions while Paul Nagel guests on acoustic piano (there’s an interesting percussion/piano duet about four minutes into “Urge for Going”). Nagel is also on the intimate “Blue” (the title number from Mitchell’s Blue), which is a beautiful piano/vocals duet which showcases Nagel’s classically-tinged elegance. Full Circle: The Music of Joni Mitchell is a wonderful encomium to one of the finest singer/songwriters of any generation. If this vocal jazz album slipped under your radar this year, search it out.

Debra Mann – vocals, piano, producer; Dino Govoni – tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone (track 6), flute (track 9); Jay Azzolina – acoustic and electric guitar; Dave Zinno – bass; Marty Richards – drums; Paul Nagel – piano (tracks 8, 11); Jerry Leake – percussion (tracks 9, 11)

TrackList:
Black Crow
Jericho
Be Cool
Goodbye Pork Pie Hat
Both Sides Now
The Circle Game
Big Yellow Taxi
Blue
A Case of You
Dry Cleaner from Des Moines
Urge for Going
Woodstock

—Doug Simpson

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