Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Artist: JONI MITCHELL
Album: DON JUAN’S RECKLESS DAUGHTER
[Welcome to Forty Year Friday, the weekly series on my favorite albums of 1977]
Back in September 2011, after writing about the discographies of Van Morrison, Talking Heads, The Band, Roxy Music and Paul Simon over the course of the previous six months, I asked my readers to select the next artist via my second poll. Joni Mitchell narrowly beat out Paul McCartney, Tom Waits & David Bowie (the latter two eventually covered here), so I embarked on my re-discovery of Ms. Mitchell’s fascinating catalog, which I documented in a 7-part series over the next couple of months. From wide-eyed folkie to confessional singer-songwriter to jazz-influenced storyteller to elder spokeswoman for generations of adoring fans, I was constantly amazed & inspired by her unique artistry. Every album is worth hearing, but for me the work she did between 1971’s Blue and 1979’s Mingus is the most timeless & enduring. As a longtime jazz fan, her collaborations with a number of that genre’s legends represent some of my favorite Joni Mitchell recordings, starting with 1976’s Hejira. On Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, appearances from saxophonist Wayne Shorter, percussionists Airto Moreira, Don Alias & Alex Acuña and guitarist Larry Carlton are enough to draw me in, but young jaw-dropping bassist Jaco Pastorius rightfully gets most of the attention. His fluid, complicated yet seemingly effortless bass lines create some of this album’s most memorable moments. It’s not the ideal entry point into Mitchell’s discography, but once you immerse yourself in her music it can easily become one of your favorites. Revisiting it recently for the first time in nearly six years, I was reminded why it had such a strong impact on me. It still sounds like nothing else from its era and holds up extremely well for an album recorded four decades ago. Here’s what I wrote about it in Part 4 of my Joni series:
Jaco Pastorius only played bass on half of Hejira, yet he made his presence known, and he stepped it up a notch on the next album, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. In fact, musically speaking this is as much a Jaco album as it is Joni’s. The theme here seems to be decadence, with Joni exploring her wild side more than ever before. I should also point out that the “man” on the cover is actually Joni in disguise, apparently an alter ego named Art Nouveau. I never picked up on that until I started delving into her catalog and exploring the artwork along with the music. It was also Joni’s first double-LP, a trend that most popular artists explored in the 70s, and featured some of her most challenging material. Opener “Overture/Cotton Avenue” has some great chorused vocals reminiscent of David Crosby’s incredible If I Could Only Remember My Name album. The upbeat “Talk To Me” is musically close to some of her earlier folky work, but Jaco’s bass adds a spacey/jazzy element. “Jericho” is a slow-paced acoustic guitar-based song, where she wants her emotional walls to come down (a similar theme to Pink Floyd’s The Wall, which was still two years away).
The most divisive song among her fans must be the 16+ minute “Paprika Plains,” by far the longest song she had recorded. It’s mostly Joni on piano with an orchestra, until bass, drums & sax join in for a few minutes at the end. It also includes an extended instrumental section coinciding with a large portion of unsung lyrics, which are printed on the gatefold LP (I still only have this one on vinyl). I couldn’t figure out why she didn’t sing these lyrics, so I’m hoping one of my readers can enlighten me. My favorite section of the album begins with “The Tenth World,” a percussive instrumental with some wordless vocals at the beginning, which segues into the equally percussive “Dreamland,” an awesome song with a great hook in the “dreamland, dreamland” refrain, and featuring Chaka Khan on backing vocals.
“Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter” continues the percussion-driven theme of its two predecessors, adding some acoustic guitar and a deep bass note repeated on the fours throughout. “Off Night Backstreet” has a cool steady groove with some smooth harmony vocals from J.D. Souther and Glenn Frey. All in all, this is another fantastic album, but it takes time to uncover all of its charms. At some point I’ll have to play this back to back with one of her first few albums to see just how drastically Joni had changed as an artist in less than a decade. Revisiting her albums in order these past couple of weeks, that change seems much more organic, but the difference might otherwise be jarring.