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Wednesday, December 6, 2023

A playlist of Joni Mitchell’s favourite jazz musicians

Diving into the confessional songwriting of Joni Mitchell is now a joy removed from the annals of Spotify. After her very public falling out with the streaming platform, as she aligned herself with friend and compatriot Neil Young, Mitchell’s body of work is now reserved for physical formats, YouTube and Apple Music. However, if you were looking for a way to connect with Mitchell via Spotify, we have just the thing.

Though Spotify is not without its issues, the streaming platform does also provide a keen service to younger listeners as it opens the door to historical exploration of musical genres they would have likely never forked over cold, hard cash for without hearing their music.

Jazz is one genre which has greatly benefitted from the streaming model, as classic pieces are given prominent placement within themed playlists while some of the genre’s icons are distilled into 50-song compendiums of their work and delivered as accessible listening lists for younger users. It might have something to do with the genre now finding its way into hip-hop, post-punk and countless other sub-genres with comparative ease.

The influence of jazz maestros such as John Coltrane and Miles Davis is nothing new though. Ever since the genre exploded across America with its freedom-inspiring forms and impassioned performances, jazz has influenced and inspired all those who heard it. Tom Waits, Radiohead and Amy Winehouse may be some of the more obvious examples, but Joni Mitchell was one of the first folk songwriters to look to jazz as a platform for further creativity.

With her 1972 album For The Roses, Mitchell would lay down a marker for her love of jazz. Starting with saxophonist Tom Scott on songs like ‘Bar and Grill’ she would look to some of the genre’s greatest talents to collaborate. Scott and his band LA Express would also saddle up alongside Graham Nash, David Crosby and Robbie Robertson to record the songs that would make 1974’s Court and Spark, marking themselves as one of Mitchell’s most trusted collaborators of the time.

Through her most notable jazz-adjacent projects, Hejira and Mingus – a tribute to the great Charles Mingus – Mitchell made clear her humbleness at the feet of such stars, including Jaco Pastorius, a bass maestro who captivated Mitchell with his iridescent freedom. Mingus was a particular focus of Mitchell’s affection, but it was a two-way street, and Mingus had reportedly been searching out the folk songwriter for a collaboration.

Mingus was nearing the end of his life but managed to record four songs with Mitchell in just two days alongside notable Mitchell favourites Herbie Hancock, Peter Erskine, Wayne Shorter and Don Alias. The symbiotic relationship of Mitchell finally finding the musical freedom she had always craved and these great jazz musicians, for once hearing the lyrics to the songs they had always dreamt of, meant songs like ‘A Chair In The Sky’ and ‘Sweet Sucker Dance’ are particularly perfect.

Elsewhere, outside of her own work, Mitchell has regularly shed light on some of her favourite jazz musicians. She noted Duke Ellington’s songs as “inimitable” as part of a CD release in which she picked her favourite songs of all time. The acclaimed folk singer also selects Billie Holiday’s ‘Solitude’, a song from a singer Mitchell is a big fan of, saying: “No one I know could express hurt and loss with such a good-hearted tone – not a trace of self-pity or melodrama in it. This was her great gift,” but also picking Miles Davis’ classic ‘It Never Enter My Mind’.

It’s clear Mitchell was a big fan as she says of the song: “Miles was contemptuous of singers. He said, ‘They’ve got words – I’ve got to do it without the words.’ On this track, Miles sings. He captures and transmits, without words, all we need to know about the situation, in the universal language of tone,” she says.

Two fine singers Mitchell did pick, however, were the iconic Ray Charles and his song ‘Lonely Avenue’ and Etta James’ classic ‘At Last’ which Mitchell discovered in a more curious way: “I first heard this song on a tampon commercial and then again in a Jaguar ad. Funny way to find a masterpiece.”

Now, we can’t give you the wonderful serendipity of finding a song like ‘At Last’ via a commercial for a car. However, we can provide you with a one-stop playlist for a collection of some of the finest jazz musicians of all time and, most notably, some of Joni Mitchell’s favourites. Find the playlist below and discover some of the greatest influences of Mitchell’s startling career.

Joni Mitchell’s favourite jazz musicians:

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