The concept of a jazz-informed program of Joni Mitchell tunes isn't exactly novel anymore. Herbie Hancock's high profile River: The Joni Letters
(Verve, 2007) took home two Grammy Awards; vocalist Tierney Sutton got some well-deserved attention when she put her own spin on Mitchell's work with After Blue
(BFM, 2013); somewhat under-the-radar releases from artists like David Lahm and Rachel Z have made something of an impact on a smaller scale; and numerous other albums that aren't necessarily built around Mitchell's work have been sprinkled with her songs.
Joni Mitchell has become something of a lodestar for a jazz community that appreciates the range of her artistry, power of her music and words, and arc of her career, moving from folk singer to heart-baring emotional conduit to jazz-informed songstress to post-modern poetess and idol. Taking all of that into consideration, it's easy to see why so many have found comfort, promise and possibility in the experience of interpreting her work. But the question that still remains "Does the jazz world really need another album of Joni Mitchell songs" is a valid one. In theory, it does not. But when the album in question is shaped by the voice of Laurie Antonioli, the answer is yes.
Antonioli's Songs Of Shadow, Songs Of Light
is an invaluable collection that looks at some of Mitchell's infrequently-covered work with a truthful gaze. Only two numbers - "Both Sides Now" and "River" - are covered with regularity. The other eleven tunes, including "Marcie," "Eastern Rain," and "People's Parties," are largely ignored, and that's a shame. In the right hands - in this case, Antonioli's hands - they're works of pure magic. This music is putty in those hands, but Antonioli doesn't bend the songs into radically new and unrecognizable shapes. She works an angle that's highly sympathetic to Mitchell. The tone and timbre of her voice are extremely well-suited to Mitchell's music, she captures the spirit of the songs, and her longtime working band finds a way to deliver those songs in faithful-yet-original fashion.
Much is often made of a singer's need to live within the songs and stories he or she spins, but many simply pay lip service to that idea without truly thinking about it. Antonioli thinks a good deal about it and actually does it. She inhabits every song that she sings, threading herself into fabric of the music. That's been apparent on every one of her releases, but never more than here. Hearing her work with pianist Matt Clark and multi-reedist Sheldon Brown on "I Don't Know Where I Stand," listening to her confidently bring "Barangrill" to life, and feeling her vulnerability on "River" are just a few examples of the way she makes this music her own without having to paint over what Mitchell created in the first place. Antonioli's stunning Songs Of Shadow, Songs Of Light
is true to Joni Mitchell and true unto herself.