Joni Mitchell's Fearless Jazz Debut, 'Ladies of the Canyon' at 50
Joni Mitchell's foray into jazz was not an impulsive change. Rather, jazz has been the constant, undulating beneath industry demands and topical concerns that called for the acoustic guitar or the Appalachian dulcimer.
Joni Mitchell's 1970 album Ladies of the Canyon celebrates a half-century in April of this year. Acclaimed for its sophisticated beauty, an "almost perfect" record in the words of rock critic Robert Christgau, Mitchell's third LP seemed to reaffirm not only her sanguine folk image, but also her reputation as one of the preeminent singer-songwriters of the era. Writing for Rolling Stone in a review of the album,Gary Von Tersch dubs Mitchell one of the "established ladies of folkdom", and later characterizes her album (full of "enigmatic, poetic word-journeys that move from taxis to windows to whiskey bars to boots of leather and racing cars") as one of "lyricism and folk...echo[ing] from [an] impresario of the current music scene."
Despite its plaudits, platinum certification, and potent palette of tunes — arguably her most iconic song, "Big Yellow Taxi", is featured here — Ladies of the Canyon feels like a footnote in the broader macrostructure of Mitchell's discography. Five decades on, just two albums, 1971's Blue and 1974's Court and Spark, are posited as the chief pillars of the artist's legacy, and remain her only records ranked on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums List.
Of course, to broad brush Mitchell's output, or classify it with such a hierarchical stasis, is to disregard her multitudinous and market-averse truth. Charts and lists seem antithetical to a woman who broke genre conventions she was credited with creating in the first place. Blue is as much a paragon of the singer-songwriter genre as it is a ruthless subversion of it, and the records that came before and after it follow a similar pattern: there is always a command of craft, but too, an undercurrent of unconventionality, inaccessibility even. No Mitchell record is ever a straightforward creation, even when its palpably zeitgeist. In a September 12, 2007 article entitled "Why Do So Many Escape Mitchell's Web?", published in The Guardian, critic Peter Lyle writes:
Leagues away from the overproduced veneer of her contemporaries, Mitchell's albums prevail as painterly latticeworks — some joyous, some disillusioning — but always contemplative. Indeed, they're engaging in a way that forces the listener to unfurl the music for themselves, without the music being unfurled for them first.
Rarely is the complexity of Mitchell's work mirrored in the complexity of the discourse surrounding it. In fact, the chronological rigidity with which her discography is often considered reduces her creative talents to a fixed, temporal space, obverse to their restlessness. A stunningly-realized concert tribute first broadcast on TNT on 16 April 2000, even falls prey to the trappings of categorical discourse, working through performances of Mitchell's songbook in prescribed career "phases" preceded by edited montages.
First, she was the unknown songwriter who graduated to folk-singer icon for the Woodstock generation, this "phase" narrated by host Ashley Judd. Then, in the first half of the '70s, she was the confessional pop superstar, the decade's feminine "bleeding heart", working at the peak of her creative powers, this "phase" narrated by guest speaker Susan Sarandon. Suddenly, she transformed into the radical, avant-garde jazz crossover in the late-'70s, with derided (and later reappraised) albums like The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975) and Mingus (1979), this "phase" narrated by guest speaker Laurence Fishburne. The rest of her discography, subject to decreasing attention since the mid-'80s, spills into grey: un-narrated, un-confronted, trapping Mitchell in "jazz experimenter" perpetuity for the rest of the tribute.
The timeline, as delineated in the TNT special, and in most contemporary writing about Mitchell, is not an inaccurate account. It is, however, frustrating in its unwillingness to read deeper into the subversiveness, and fluidity, of the artist's five-decade soundscape, unrestrained by dates and trends. Its textbook-style conceptualizations limit more abstract interpretations of her musicality, insensibly siloing an oeuvre of lyrical and instrumental transcendence.
As a result, her trio of countercultural folk albums (1968's Song to a Seagull, 1969's Clouds, and 1970's Ladies of the Canyon), and the slew of experimental jazz records released almost ten years later (The Hissing of Summer Lawns, 1976's Hejira, 1977's Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, and Mingus) are rendered as isolated output. This perpetuates the feeling that these albums were made by two utterly different artists or, rather, one artist who had not fully matured in her craft until that latter "phase" where, in those late-'70s jazz days, she had found her "true self".
While Mitchell's jazz albums remain some of her most explosive statements, to say that those albums exist as disparate musical phenomena, or as more mature and radical expressions of her style than her early folk albums, is to view her discography not only rigidly, but reductively. Five decades on, Ladies of the Canyon remains one of Mitchell's most confident and fully-realized works. Still, it lives in the shadow of albums like Blue and Court and Spark because of the rudimentary "folk-pop" designation with which it is often crudely branded. (Blue and Court and Spark themselves are branded: not only by genres, but by the streamlined lists that consistently rank them superior to the rest of Mitchell's resume.)
Named after hippie music mecca Laurel Canyon, Ladies of the Canyon appears, at first, to emulate the sun-dappled, "free love" milieu of which Mitchell herself became reluctantly emblematic. But contrary to that mecca's sound and iconography, and to the myriad streaming services and music archives that label Ladies of the Canyon as such (see its entries in AllMusic and Wikipedia, among others), it is not a folk-pop album. Perhaps more daring: it is Mitchell's earliest expression of the jazz sound she would employ holistically in later LPs, notably The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Hejira, and Mingus.
How is this possible? Boasting environmentalist anthems like "Big Yellow Taxi" and zeitgeist requiems like "Woodstock", all leading up to her rawest expression of the acoustic sound on Blue the following year, labeling Ladies of the Canyon a jazz album feels extreme, even contrarian.
Then again, what is jazz, at its essence? Merriam-Webster defines the genre as being characterized by "a loud rhythmic manner...propulsive syncopated rhythms, polyphonic ensemble playing, varying degrees of improvisation, and often deliberate distortions of pitch and timbre". On overtly jazz and experimental albums like The Hissing of Summer Lawns and Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, such attributes are immediately noticeable. Loud rhythms, syncopation, improvisation, and so on, do not manifest baldly on Ladies of the Canyon, which opens with "Morning Morgantown", performed on a rustic guitar with a bright, open piano supporting its strums. Jazz? Not quite.
Track two presents an alternative narrative. " For Free" begins with a similar simplicity, before unspooling into a stunning jazz expression. This example denotes what I like to call "tangible employment", the first of two tactics Mitchell utilizes to infuse the genre. As her contemplative piano bleeds into silence, a striking clarinet solo by Paul Horn takes over, pulling the song into a cerebral U-turn during its final moments. The jazz is direct, tactile, redoubtable, so much that it feels like a mistake. Surely Mitchell did not mean to include such a diversion.
Upon shamelessly revisiting a jazz denouement (this time louder and more elaborate) at the end of "Conversation", the idea that Mitchell "mistakenly" allowed clarinets, saxophones, and even percussion to slip into her otherwise piano-packed and guitar-laden album proves an underestimation, not only of her diverse artistry, but her self-awareness. She understood her handlers' attempts at essentializing her sound, and image, into that of the folky, Laurel Canyon poster child. Perhaps Ladies of the Canyon is Mitchell's proud, unapologetic wink at her listeners: a calculated middle finger to the industry — a hidden jazz statement wrapped up in flower-power accoutrements.
Of course, that image was not a complete misrepresentation of Mitchell's creative sensibilities. "Big Yellow Taxi" remains not only a masterpiece of the folk genre, but perhaps the most recognizable song about ecological concerns to emerge from the 20th century. As noted by biographer David Yaffe, "When Ladies of the Canyon was released, "Big Yellow Taxi" became instantly popular — because its protest message was timely and right, and the song was completely infectious." Other songs, like "The Priest", "The Circle Game", and even the title track, emerge as sophisticated exercises in acoustic music-making that have stood the test of time. Thus, to ultimately call Ladies of the Canyon a jazz album in no way eliminates its undeniable folk qualities. But even in its folkiest excursions, a jazz sensibility remains. This second tactic of genre infusion is what I like to call "spiritual emulation".
In her "tangible employment", Mitchell hides the jazz in the cracks and folds of her LP (namely, at the ends of songs), while in the songs themselves, she brandishes those jazz diversions as proud codas that stand up, virtually, as their own pieces of music, separate of the tracks into which they are enmeshed, "sore thumbs" if you will. Even publications that classify Ladies of the Canyon as a "folk" or "pop" album accept this fact, with David Cleary of AllMusic noting: "Jazz elements are noticeable in the wind solos of 'For Free' and 'Conversation'".
In a sunny folk song like "Ladies of the Canyon", discernible jazz appurtenances like saxophones, clarinets, drums, even pianos, are not featured. Still, "Ladies of the Canyon" maintains a jazz complexity, even if it only features Mitchell on guitar. Over four sprawling and sumptuous minutes, she croons about Trina, "filling her drawing book with line", and Annie, "baking her cakes and her breads", and Estrella, "wrapped in songs and gypsy shawls", as amorphous chords pour from her guitar strings and her vocals, of which there seems to be an infinite number — note layered over note, string over string, in a polyphonic tone poem.
She has made the acoustic guitar as dizzyingly powerful a jazz instrument as the trombone, and has slipped its dichotomous sounds, in all their mixed joy and agony, through our unassuming ears. Suddenly, the guitar inhabits a new life form: as a woodwind, or a brass instrument. Mitchell repurposes the tonality of the tools at her disposal, redefining their sound with experimental tunings and improvised playing.
She goes on to deliberately distort pitch and timbre throughout. On "Woodstock", later repurposed as a chart success-turned-countercultural anthem by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Mitchell paints a plaintive picture banged out on a Wurlitzer electric piano. Thickly accented by intentional vocal cracking, with multi-track backup singing, it is almost chilling in its discordance. As noted by David Yaffe in his biography, Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell:
Here, Yaffe weaves Mitchell's technique into a landmark jazz album, validating her song's and album's genre complexity. How CSNY was able to pull a pop-rock hit out of such elaborately poignant murkiness remains a mystery.
Songs like " Willy" and "The Arrangement" see Mitchell stick to the piano, and adhere to the singer-songwriter blueprint common in much of her work. But even here, the way her voice races so vigorously up and down the octave — at once, smooth, then suddenly, raspy, cracked, high-pitched — calls on a certain jazz spirit unseen in the despondency of Blue, the decadence of Song to a Seagull, or the autumnal twinkle of Clouds.
"Rainy Night House" follows a similar formula, save for the "upstairs choir" and its eerie foreshadow of the "Shadows and Light" chorus on The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Like on much of the album, the jazz is subtextual, a hazy leitmotif in sound and theme, but a leitmotif nonetheless.
Why does a "re-genre-ing" of the album matter? Ultimately, this thesis argues that Mitchell's foray into jazz was not an impulsive change of pace, uncharted, unprecedented. Rather, jazz has been the constant, undulating beneath industry demands and topical concerns that called, situationally, for the acoustic guitar or the Appalachian dulcimer. It was only until Mitchell could fully validate her marketability, with a string of spirited "folk" releases and, eventually, the chart success of Court and Spark in 1974, that she could show her true colors without risk of rejection. By that point, she was undeniable, "widely considered...'70s folk royalty", and while full-throttle, avant-garde jazz could mean a drop in sales (The Hissing of Summer Lawns and Hejira, for example, did not receive mainstream radio airplay), it would not mean a loss of respect or sustainability. She had already earned her stay.
In 1970, she was still the "young star", longevity ahead of her if she'd be willing to "fit in with the times". She did just that, although not in total abandon. The jazz was more covert, sure, but it was still there. Even amid the demands of a music industry enamored with folk and, at large, the "sounds of the counterculture" (demands she herself participated in and helped to pioneer), she never surrendered.
Ergo, committing Ladies of the Canyon to simple folk-pop essentialism buries it behind the looming legacies of Blue, Court and Spark, and even Mitchell's widely-debated avant-garde jazz albums of the late-'70s. More importantly, it also misrepresents it, and its undeniable jazz qualities, entirely. After all, creators do not exist behind fixed labels. That simply isn't the Joni Mitchell way.
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