Bay Area vocalist Laurie Antonioli has been performing and recording for more than 30 years. Early on she mixed paints with the likes of Joe Henderson, Mark Murphy and Pony Poindexter with whom she undertook an 8-month European junket in 1980, quickening her already impressive jazz chops. Antonioli's discography is a slim yet intense affair that is full of brilliant pathos and musicianship. She has had much time pass between releases resulting in a sonic career where her evolution as an artist is experienced in fits and starts. That was, until the release of American Dreams
(Intrinsic Music, 2010) when she assembled her most empathetic and clicking band. That recording focused on the logos of Americana. Superbly arranged and recorded, American Dreams
presented the vocalist outside of the standards realm looking into a complicated culture while adding a few surprises of her own.
Antonioli, with her American Dreams orchestra fully intact return for a smartly conceived and displayed project on Songs of Shadow, Songs of Light
: the Music of Joni Mitchell. Mitchell's music is no mystery to jazz or jazz musicians. Mitchell made two landmark jazz records, back by members of Weather Report in Mingus (Asylum, 1979) and Shadows and Light (Asylum, 1980). Mitchell's music has been the subject of jazz vocals projects in the past, but none with the clarity and intention displayed in Antonioli's efforts here. Antonioli and her fine band have quickened in the last four years into a limber and exacting jazz ensemble. Their sound is greater than that expected from a quintet, mostly because of Jason Lewis' expansive post-bop drumming and John Schifflett's solid, driving bass. This rhythm section holds down the edges, allowing the soloists to ply their trades.
Antonioli's interpretations tend toward the impressionistic and ranging from the dramatically hewn "People's Parties" (from Court and Spark (Asylum. 1973)), featuring Theo Bleckmann's wordless vocals to the deeply grooved figures populating For the Roses' "Barangrill." Sheldon Brown's bass clarinet provides a dark coffee bottom to the intricate and durable arrangement, fast paced and insistent. Antonioli's singing is hip and swinging. "Eastern Rain" is given an inventive Eastern treatment accented by Lewis' expertly played percussion and Brown's snake-charmer slippery clarinet.
Antonioli makes generous use of the band member's arranging abilities. Guitarist Dave Mac Nab adds his impressive abilities and crying slide guitar to "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire," "River," and "California." "River" has become a popular song of the holidays and Antonioli turns it on its ear. Pianist Matt Clark infuses a faint "Jingle Bells" in the brief pastoral introduction. The song begins with a simple figure and Antonioli's soulfulness with that of the band as Brown's tart soul tenor solos over Clark's B-3 and Mac Nab's carefully constructed Muscle Shoals guitar riffs. The song is transmuted it into a delicate gospel- soul ballad that downshifts into a self-propelling momentum. These touches are not overt, they exist in the song like a fragrance...here the band and singer approach perfection.
Blue (Reprise, 1971) gives up "California" and Antonioli and crew stretch out on the recording's penultimate song, one that makes use of all the forces brought to bear. As good as Mac Nab's slide guitar is, it is Antonioli who fully shines like a diamond. Hers is a voice that is perfectly seasoned by the material. Antonioli makes no secret of Mitchell's musical magic in her own life, but never does she fall into mere imitation. Antonioli catches Mitchell's phrases and phrasing as if from thin air, exhaling them as warm, autumnal bursts of memory. I will not hear a better recording this year.