Even if she couldn't be there in person, boy, was Joni Mitchell ever there in spirit.
At Friday night's SFJAZZ gala tribute to Mitchell – currently hospitalized after collapsing in her home last month – the 71-year-old singer, songwriter, and composer received honors that fittingly, and finally, focused on her music instead of her personal life.
It wasn't always this way. For decades, the male rock musicians with which Mitchell kept relations overshadowed her artistry. Indeed, less than five minutes into Friday's tribute, her relationship with Graham Nash was mentioned in introductory comments by Ben Fong-Torres, recalling his first Rolling Stone cover story, on Mitchell, in 1969. (Not mentioned was the infamous “family tree” of men Mitchell slept with, published by Rolling Stone in 1971, wherein she was dubbed “Old Lady of the Year” at, ahem, age 28.)
But even amid TMZ gossip about Mitchell's health, leaked legal documents and a close watch on her very mortality, in the end it was all about her music at SFJAZZ. Or, rather, at the beginning: Kelly Jones kicked off the program with a version of “Court and Spark” that encapsulated the variegated style of Mitchell's music, with Latin percussion, country lap-steel guitar, classical piano and flamenco guitar solos.
Very few composers can boast the quantity and breadth of Mitchell's output, which for a span of several years in the 1970s veered unwaveringly into the jazz realm, buoyed by sidemen like Jaco Pastorious, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and Brian Blade (who served as a musical director for the concert). But even her earlier, folkier work received jazz treatments, as in the SFJAZZ Collective's angular instrumental take on “Both Sides Now.” Avashi Cohen took the melody on trumpet, but fellow hornmen Tom Scott, Mark Isham, Miguel Zenón and David Sanchez inverted and augmented the song's chords in an emotional arrangement by Zenón, complete with time changes and an extended outro quoting Nirvana's “All Apologies.”
The clear highlight of the evening came courtesy of Judith Hill, who most know from her turn in the backup-singer documentary 20 Feet From Stardom. Hill's goosebump-inducing version of “River,” one of four songs performed from Mitchell's 1971 masterpiece Blue, channeled Aretha Franklin in her prime over a swampy, arpeggio-driven funk arrangement; it transformed a song of sorrow into a song of liberation, and brought the house down.
Another special moment came with a brief appearance by Kris Kristofferson, who gave a wise-grandpa treatment to “A Case of You.” Half talking, half singing, Kristofferson brought 78 years of experience to the innocent song of young love, and the effect was extraordinary. And the performer that conjured Mitchell's unique phrasing more than any other was Patti Austin, who quipped to the cameras, “My goddess, Joni, I love you desperately, I love you madly. Could you write some simpler songs?”
And yes, the challenging nature of her songs sometimes caught up with performers. Laurie Antonioli struggled with tempo and key during a high-speed version of “This Flight Tonight,” and Kurt Elling's lounge-singer approach provided an awkward contrast to “Edith and the Kingpin” and “Black Crow.” Especially ridiculous was a repetitive, heavy-metal version of “The Jungle Line,” with power chords, chromatic riffs, tribal drumming and a scat solo by Elling that ended in a Tibetan growl.
Though Joe Jackson slipped into and out of falsetto uncomfortably, his New Orleans boogie-woogie piano take on “Big Yellow Taxi” enlivened the crowd, and he even threw in a bit of Thelonious Monk's “Blue Monk” for extra jazz cred. (Later in the set, Jackson ran through a serviceable version of “Twisted,” the Jon Hendricks composition that Jackson introduced as a “cover of a cover.”)
The other “cover of a cover,” Charles Mingus' “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” represented the most somber mood of the night. Mingus composed the haunting track the the late 1950s as a tribute to Lester Young after his death (Mitchell put words to it for her 1979 album, Mingus), and it was hard to hear its pensive arrangement by Cohen without thinking of Mitchell's current health concerns.
In accepting the Lifetime Achievement Award on Mitchell's behalf, jazz legend Wayne Shorter echoed what many mentioned from the stage: that he'd talked to Mitchell recently, and that she wished that she could have been there.
After the two-hour tribute to her music, we all wished she could have been there, too.