October 1, 2003

Joni Mitchell
Shadows and Light
Since 1968, when Joni Mitchell burst on the folk-rock scene with her debut album Joni Mitchell, the Canadian singer-songwriter has maintained a parallel career in the visual arts. A committed painter, she has illustrated many of her album covers, and always masterminds their design. In 1980, she became a film director, mixing footage from her incredible 1979 concert at the Santa Barbara County Bowl with lyrically inspired, impressionistic imagery. The resulting Shadows and Light was originally released on video. Long out of print—but now remastered on DVD and enhanced with 5.1 surround sound and a digital photo scrapbook— this experimental mix of live music, film clips, and dance reveals Mitchell’s many gifts: her expressive voice, poetic lyrics, deft guitar accompaniment, exotic persona, and singular artistic vision.

The film’s raison d’ˆtre is the awesome music. Mitchell’s stellar band features Pat Metheny on lead guitar and Jaco Pastorius on bass, plus Lyle Mays (keys), Michael Brecker (sax), and Don Alias (drums). As a bonus, Mitchell sings a cappella with the Persuasions on the film’s two closing songs. Shadows and Light finds Mitchell at the peak of her powers, surrounded by her best-ever band. Understanding her desire to blur the boundaries between folk and jazz, Metheny and Pastorius manage to push Mitchell musically without overstepping their role as sidemen.

Pastorius, who provided stirring fretless bass on her preceding three albums, Hejira, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, and Mingus, is especially powerful. Strutting and cocky, he drives the band with a potent blend of aching melody and relentless groove, yet never overwhelms Mitchell’s delicate fingerpicking, open-tuned riffs, or intricate vocals. Coaxing singing tones from his battered ’62 Fender Jazz bass, Pastorius soars and dives through the songs like a kite dancing in a stiff wind. At times, it’s painful to witness his razor-sharp performance, knowing that in a few years his magnificent talent would be dissipated by drugs, and that he’d die in 1987, destitute and largely forgotten.

Both Metheny and Pastorius have wonderful musical cameos. Pastorius, who pioneered the use of loops onstage, mingles bop licks and feedback over churning, recurring riffs, and ultimately pays tribute to Hendrix with shuddering quotes from “Third Stone from the Sun.” Metheny’s solo offering is more introspective. Using a pair of Lexicon Prime Time II DDLs set to different delay times with subtle, slow modulation, he pulls ripe, watery tones from his blond ’58 Gibson ES-175 and “deadwound” strings. We watch Metheny balance the seemingly contradictory forces of melodically driven bebop and richly textured electronic guitar. It’s a beautiful moment.

The film offers several other high points. Thanks to the creative multi-camera work, we’re able to see the details of Mitchell’s distinctive fingerpicking technique, and watch her dart between bass runs and chord riffs on her Ibanez George Benson guitars. Ever seen Metheny play slide? He does here. Best of all, the audio is clean and detailed, and the instruments are artfully panned to simulate each player’s stage position.

But Shadows and Light also has its frustrating moments. For instance, during “Hejira”—in which Pastorius seamlessly juggles querulous melodies and moaning intervals—we watch Mitchell ice skating in a surreal dance number. Yeah, her partner is a spirited skater, but that’s Jaco wailing in the background. I want to see him work those Swing Bass Rotosounds! In “Coyote,” we observe a handsome Canis latrans gambol in the snow and hunt a rodent. But there’s precious little Pastorius, though his chimey harmonics and burbling lines play a starring role in the music. Even in “Amelia,” the grainy newsreel footage of the lost aviatrix can distract from the poignant music and Mitchell’s confessional lyrics. And what’s up with those opening film clips of James Dean from Rebel Without a Cause? You might find these and other visual excursions intriguing the first time you see them, but I suspect on subsequent viewings, you’ll wish you could watch the players interact instead.

Even if Shadows and Light doesn’t totally succeed on a visual level, it is a stunning musical statement. Mitchell’s mid-period songs—in all their restless, progressive glory—are rendered beautifully by young, hot players (Metheny, Mays, and Pastorius were all in their 20s when this was filmed). Dressed in a sharp silk suit, Mitchell sings like a fallen angel, picks spot-on rhythm guitar through her 2x12 Roland JC120 Jazz Chorus, and exudes a mysterious, bohemian sensuality.

Shadows and Light transports us back to a time when the union of jazz and rock produced a daring mix of improvisation and groove—as opposed to elevator music—and huge crowds would gather to noisily celebrate this creative coupling. Whether you’re a Mitchell freak, a fan of ’70s fusion, or simply want to remember Pastorius at his best, Shadows and Light belongs in your DVD library. Shout! Factory.

—Andy Ellis

Various Artists
The Story of the Blues
Originally released in 1969 as an audio accompaniment to Paul Oliver’s excellent book of the same title, The Story of the Blues has been remastered and expanded to include a whopping 13 “bonus” tracks. Covering the entire history of the blues on two CDs is an impossibly daunting task, yet the 42 well-chosen tracks included here manage to touch most of the important bases, and provide a sense of the form’s developmental trajectory from its inception to 2001. The collection is divided into five sections: The Origin of the Blues; The Blues &Entertainment; The Thirties, Urban & Rural Blues; World War II and After; and the bonus tracks. The accompanying 20-page booklet, with extensive liner notes by Oliver, provides a brief historical overview of the genre and detailed credits for the 42 songs.

In the first four sections you’ll find a song each by such staples as Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Leadbelly, Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson, Bukka White, and Big Bill Broonzy, along with lots of lesser-known artists such as Peg Leg Howell, Barbecue Bob &Laughing Charley, Butterbeans &Susie, and the Mississippi Jook Band. Curiously, songs by Lightnin’ Hopkins, Willie Dixon, and Muddy Waters are in the Bonus Tracks section, as are a wide range of modern bluesmen and blues-inspired artists such as Taj Mahal, Jeff Beck, the Electric Flag, Johnny Winter, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Whether you’re seeking an introduction to the blues, or you’d just like to have a bunch of classics in a well-sequenced two-disc set, this collection is highly recommended. Columbia/Legacy.

—Barry Cleveland

Daniel Peterson
Illinois Jazz Project
Talented multi-instrumentalist Peterson delivers plenty of smooth, glass-of-Cognac-after-a-night-of-clubbing moments on this jazz set, and hepcats of the Playboy glory days will absolutely revel in his melodic forays and tuxedo-sophisticate tone. Another bonus is his reverence for songs and song structures. You can groove to these tracks as background ambience or as a critical listener and never feel as if you’re being pulled too far out of your comfort zone. In other words, Illinois Jazz Project is definitely produced to caress and please, rather than challenge your sensibilities of melody, harmony, and tone. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but Peterson also manages to add just enough funk (guitar harmonies, interesting melodic shifts, some “blue” bends, etc.) to lift the album out of the realm of invisible cocktail-bar music. The only things that truly threaten the mellow vibe-out are his percussion parts— which tend to sound stiff and overly bright (on the cymbal work), and are mixed way too far up front to enhance the moods of the gentler tracks—and an occassional sharp bite and ever-so-slight stumble in his picking. You get the feeling that Peterson would absolutely cook in the right band, but, until that happens, Illinois Jazz Project is a real find for jazz lovers jonesing for a more traditional fix. Landmark.

—Michael Molendag


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