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.”