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Joni Mitchell finds her jazz side

Both Sides Now
Both Sides Now
By Joni Mitchell

Reprise Records: 2000

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This review first appeared in the May 26, 2000 edition of the American Reporter.

Joni Mitchell, jazz singer? She of bows and flows of angel hair and ice cream castles in the air?

Believe it. Mitchell's latest release, "Both Sides Now," is as good an album of jazz singing as has come down the pike in some time.

Mitchell has always been an outstanding singer, but the fact is that the folk music she earned her reputation on over the past three decades doesn't make the same demands on a singer as jazz – where singers are often given the more respectful title of "vocalist" for the very good reason that a jazz singer is expected to be an instrumentalist and not just a pretty decoration.

On this latest release, Mitchell remolds herself into a Billie Holiday-styled chanteuse. She even tackles Holiday's classic "You've Changed," and turns in a respectful reading that can be faulted only for hewing too closely to Holiday's classic version.

Most of the songs here are of a similar vintage – Mitchell dug back into the 1950s and earlier (going back into the '30s) for chestnuts such as "Comes Love," "Don't Go To Strangers," "You're My Love" and "I Wish I Were in Love Again."

If she stayed safely in Holiday's shadow on "You've Changed," she finds her own voice on two other songs strongly identified with other singers. She presents a halting, shyly passionate interpretation of "Stormy Weather" over a lush orchestra that is very nearly as nice as Lena Horne's original (from the 1943 movie of the same name). And on "At Last," which was given a nearly overpowering stylistic imprint by Etta James in 1961, Mitchell neither pays homage to James nor returns to the earlier versions from the Big Band era, but instead finds a new vein to mine, drawing out more of the often overlooked jazz flavorings of the ballad.

Mitchell included two of her own songs here: "A Case of You" and the title track, which closes out the album. "Both Sides Now" remains, 33 years after she first recorded it, Mitchell's signature song – and while her jazz version of it here can't compete with her still-remarkable original, it does retain its power to enchant in its new format.

The orchestration, arrangements and soloists (Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Mark Isham) are stellar throughout, and give Mitchell the solid foundation she needs to explore.

Mitchell's voice has deepened and grown richer with age, and she displays a definite knack for finding new niches in old standards, for bending a note to bring out color, holding a beat to get our attention.

Joni Mitchell shows herself to be a real vocalist – a singer of jazz.