Jazzy Joni on DVD

In the mid-‘70s when Joni Mitchell applied the glossy red lipstick and abandoned the bucolic but spent Laurel Canyon hippie scene, it was the end of an era, and for some fans, the end of the their love affair with Joni Mitchell. Many felt betrayed—as if she’d decided to grow up while they desperately clung to their youthful, Peter Pan-ish ‘60’s idealism. The sense of abandonment and estrangement was palpable. Thirty years later artists like Neil Young prove it is possible to maintain the ‘60s zeal and ideal—at least esthetically—while this superb DVD documenting Mitchell’s musical growth and her ability to keep up with and indeed lead some of the best jazz artists of the time, proves that it’s also possible for an artist to shift musical directions 360 degrees while remaining true to core values.

Filmed in concert at the Santa Barbara Bowl and directed by Mitchell back in 1979, the performance is a fascinating time capsule showing both an artist and an audience in flux as Mitchell, hollow bodied Gretsch electric strapped over her shoulders, covers material from the jazz-tinged Court and Spark to the jazzy Hejira to the jazz of Mingus, backed by a stellar assemblage of now familiar jazz greats including Pat Metheny, his frequent cohort Lyle Mays, drummer Don Alias, the late bass innovator Jaco Pastorius, and saxophone great Michael Brecker.

For those who may have doubted it at the time, seeing and hearing this DVD now, 24 years later, demonstrates that Mitchell was not playing in someone else’s sandbox: she had become a jazz musician. Her vocal take on Charlie Mingus’s tribute to Lester Young, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” —with original lyrics—shows an artist fully in command of her craft and of her chosen musical genre. Mitchell had gone beyond the fusion she’d reached with Tom Scott on Miles of Aisles. She was not playing with a jazz group, she was in one.

Originally issued on VHS more than 15 years ago, this Shout! Factory DVD improves both picture and sound with a 5.1 channel Dolby Digital mix as well as an uncompressed 2 channel PCM stereo original track. The disc includes 13 songs and 15 extra minutes of footage totaling more than 75 minutes from one of Mitchell’s most interesting musical periods backed by the finest musicians with whom she’s ever played (minus Charles Mingus, or course).

Included are live versions of “Coyote,” “Amelia,” “Raised on Robbery,” and “Free Man In Paris.” There is an absolutely stunning solo turn by Jaco Pastorius who delivers a compelling “The High and the Mighty,” and a bass solo cover of Hendrix’s “Third Stone From the Sun,” that might have you standing up and cheering in your living room. The Persuasions guest star with Mitchell on a fine version of Frankie Lymon and The Teenager’s “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?”

The picture is well-transferred 4:3 film quality; don't expect much, but the sound is remarkably good—especially the PCM stereo track. There are also extras including photos by Neil Young’s longtime photo archivist Joel Bernstein.

Mitchell's cutaways to scenes from "Rebel Without a Cause," and other distracting silliness are easily forgiven.

Mitchell fans will have to have this disc.

Shout! Factory is a new venture founded by Richard Foos (and two others) who helped turn Rhino from a used record store into an institution. He’s off to a good start. Again.