Brian Blade Leads ‘Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration’

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Norah Jones is among the artists who pay tribute to Joni Mitchell on a new album and DVD.

(Photo: The Music Center)

The two sold-out concerts staged in November at Los Angeles’ Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, both in honor of singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell’s 75th birthday, generated a significant amount of media coverage—and rightfully so. But little of it focused on the jazz undergirding much of the music. Taking on duties as arrangers and co-musical directors for the concerts were drummer Brian Blade—a longtime Mitchell collaborator—and one of his bandmates in the Fellowship Band, pianist Jon Cowherd. The house band featured a few other jazz luminaries, too, including trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and reedist Bob Sheppard.

Highlights from the shows are chronicled on the excellent new album Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration (Decca) and a DVD of the same name from Rhino. The diverse lineup of singers on board, some of whom were handpicked by Mitchell, included Diana Krall, Norah Jones, Seal, James Taylor, Brandi Carlile, Glen Hansard, Rufus Wainwright, Chaka Khan, Graham Nash, Emmylou Harris and Kris Kristofferson.

Mitchell made a rare appearance at the second show, which took place on her birthday, Nov. 7. Since suffering a brain aneurysm in 2015, she rarely has appeared in public, except to occasionally attend concerts in Los Angeles.

Mitchell is perhaps best known for her pop hits from the early ’70s, such as “Help Me,” “Free Man In Paris” and “Big Yellow Taxi,” but jazz fans revere her for adventurous, genre-blending classic albums, such as Hejira (1976), Mingus (1979) and the concert disc Shadows And Light (1980), which showcased contributions from saxophonist Michael Brecker, guitarist Pat Metheny, bassist Jaco Pastorius and keyboardist Lyle Mayes.

“Joni was always taking chances,” Blade—who joined the vocalist in the studio for her 1998 album Taming The Tiger—said recently. “She wasn’t bound by rules and theories.”

The drummer has a long history with the iconic composer’s work. In 2011—three years after Herbie Hancock won two Grammys for his tribute album River: The Joni Letters—Blade and Cowherd directed the Joni Jazz all-star show at the Hollywood Bowl, featuring Wayne Shorter. They also were involved with a tribute concert at Massey Hall in Toronto in 2013, as well as the SFJAZZ Center’s Lifetime Achievement Award concert in 2015 (which took place only weeks after her becoming sick and where her good friend Shorter accepted the honor for her). Singer Kurt Elling who performed at that concert, said that Mitchell’s “whole career has been beyond genre.” Blade and Cowherd took a version of that show on the road for a performance at the North Sea Jazz Festival in 2015.

“I’m trying to adapt her music from what she’s already perfectly documented herself,” Blade told DownBeat back in 2015. “Writing new adaptations is so hard because her work is great already.”

For this Joni 75 date, Blade explained the sense of responsibility he felt in putting it together. “It was all about Joni feeling honored and respected,” he said in a recent phone conversation. “And to do it with all our hearts. We tried our best to stay true and stay as close to her original vision as possible. Then we just let go and supported whoever stood at the mic.”

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