Still, the singer-songwriter wasn’t letting that awareness deter her from continuing to explore the style. Fresh off a series of increasingly challenging albums, the latest of which was a collaboration with legendary bassist Charles Mingus, she was getting ready to go out on the road with a band made up entirely of A-list jazz musicians: saxophonist Michael Brecker, guitarist Pat Metheny, keyboardist Lyle Mays, drummer Don Alias and bass virtuoso Jaco Pastorius, a key presence on her recent studio LPs.
Here you can watch the group play a funky, high-energy version of “Free Man in Paris,” a track from Mitchell’s classic 1974 album Court and Spark. (The clip comes from a 1979 Santa Barbara show later released as the double live album and concert film Shadows and Light.) Between verses and after the final one, the song opens up into flashy fusion-like instrumental breakdowns, with Brecker’s muscular tenor sax soaring over top.
All of Mitchell’s sidemen were well known for their jazz work by this time. The guitarist had recently scored a Number One album on Billboard‘s Jazz chart with his 1979 Pat Metheny Group LP American Garage, which also featured Mays. Brecker was working with his trumpet-playing brother Randy in their funk-fusion outfit the Brecker Brothers and had made cameos on a slew of rock and pop tracks, including Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years.” Alias had played drum set and congas on Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and worked with Blood, Sweat & Tears, among many others. And beyond his groundbreaking work on Mitchell albums like Hejira, Pastorius was wowing audiences on the road with the electric-jazz supergroup Weather Report.
“With these players, we’re talking about young musicians who have no real musical or categorical preferences,” Mitchell told Crowe of the band she’d assembled for the tour. “We all love rock & roll. We all love folk music. And we all love jazz. If anything, we want to be considered a musical event. We’re going to do some traditional African ceremonial drum pieces. I would like to get loose enough to dance. “
Mitchell’s sound became less overtly jazz-centric in the Eighties, but she never stopped collaborating with players from that world, from saxophonist Wayne Shorter and pianist Herbie Hancock (who won an Album of the Year Grammy for River: The Joni Letters, his 2007 album of Mitchell interpretations) to drummer Brian Blade, who recorded and performed with her in the Nineties and 2000s.
Before the ’79 tour, Mitchell talked about how her jazz-influenced work grew directly out of her developing lyrical style. “A commonly asked question among your long-term fans right now is, what happened to the melodies?” Crowe asks. “The album with Charles is incredibly melodic,” Mitchell counters. “What it is, is more melody. Granted, [Hejira track] ‘Coyote’ is not a melodic tune. It’s rhythmic, it’s almost chantlike. A lot of it is spoken: ‘No regrets, Coyote.’ But I’ve always been a lover of melody. I don’t think that I’ve ever lost that. It’s just that at a certain point, my poetry began to spill out of the form and into something more relative to a jazz sense of melody, which was restating the melody in variation. If you have four verses, maybe it’ll be slightly different every time it comes around. But that’s just different. It doesn’t always have to be melodic. So what, you know?”