Album Review: Joni Mitchell, ‘The Asylum Albums (1976-1980)’

Throughout her career, Joni Mitchell has always been restless, never settling into one groove and following instead the notes, chords, and lyrics where they take her. With 1975’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Mitchell expanded her own repertoire, moving from folk and pop into jazz and rhythmic improvisations, explorations she had begun already in 1974’s live album Miles of Aisles when she was backed by the L.A. Express, whose members included jazz musicians Tom Scott, Joe Sample, John Guerin, Larry Carlton, and Max Bennett. Following the tour for The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Mitchell holed up in Neil Young’s house for a short time to rest, but in early 1976 she soon hit the road, making several long road trips. On one of those trips she drove alone back from Maine to California—her own hejira (departure, exodus)—and these travels kicked off a transformative and intensely creative period of Mitchell’s musical life.

Between 1976 and 1980, Mitchell wrote and recorded four albums—Hejira (1976), Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter (1977), Mingus (1979), and the double live album Shadows and Light (1980)—on which she explored the spaciousness and cosmic and sonic freedom of jazz and its lyrical and instrumental flights of beauty and introspection. Now, digging into Mitchell’s archives—which she has opened and from which she has been releasing material for the past few years—Rhino has collected these newly remastered albums into The Asylum Years (1976-1980), a 5-CD set, as well as limited edition (5,000) 6-LP set, which includes as part of the cover art a portion of one of Mitchell’s original paintings. The set includes liner notes by Meryl Steep.

Hejira opens with Mitchell’s shimmering, free-falling layers of guitar on “Coyote,” a clever lyrical take on a one-night stand with a ladies man whose canine appetites keep him looking for his next conquest at breakfast the next morning. Neil Young contributes harmonica to the gorgeous ode to blues musician Furry Lewis, “Furry Sings the Blues,” which recounts Mitchell’s meeting with Lewis one night on Beale Street. The cinematic title track features Jaco Pastorius’ sprawling bass which provides the thematic lines surrounded by Mitchell’s guitars and vocals, mimicking a “hejira,” a taking leave, in this case, from her relationship with drummer John Guerin. The softly swinging “Blue Motel Room” expresses hope for the renewal of a relationship, while the final track, “Refuge of the Roads,” is an airy meditation on the freedom found in spiritual healing.

The sprawling Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, her first double studio album, gave Mitchell the space and freedom to wander blissfully through various musical styles, and she embraces her penchant for experimentation fully on the album. In addition to Pastorius, the album includes jazz musicians Wayne Shorter on saxophone, Larry Carlton on guitar, and Don Alias on percussion. The opening medley, “Overture/Cotton Avenue,” features a free-form introduction (“Overture”) in which Pastorius’s bass plays call and response with Mitchell’s inventive guitar stylings as they move from one tuning to another. The intro segues into “Cotton Avenue,” a bright composition propelled by Mitchell’s scatting. The frenetic “Talk to Me” hearkens back Mitchell’s earlier albums, but it sonically resembles an up-tempo version of “Coyote,” to which to which it may be a riposte. The most ambitious song on the album is “Paprika Plains,” a 16-minute piano improvisation that ranges over topics from hopelessness, nuclear explosions, and the renewal of dream states. “The Tenth World” is an extended instrumental of Latin percussion, while only vocals, Mitchell’s and Chaka Khan’s, and percussion provide the hypnotic structure of “Dreamland.”

After hearing “Paprika Plains,” bassist Charles Mingus contacted Mitchell about collaborating with her. They worked on the album that was released in 1979 as Mingus. While he wrote several songs for the project, Mingus died before it was completed. Mitchell dedicated the album to him and included four of his songs on the album. The chamber jazz piece, “A Chair in the Sky,” written by Mingus, features Pastorius on bass and Mitchell’s ethereal vocals that wrap around Herbie Hancock’s electric piano. Mitchell’s spaciously unfolding version of Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” serves as a stunning tribute to the great jazz musician.

Mitchell’s final album for Asylum was the double-live album Shadows and Light. It was recorded at the Santa Barbara County Bowl on September 9, 1979, during her tour behind the Mingus album. Although she performs some of her songs from Court and Spark—“In France They Kiss on Main Street,” “Free Man in Paris”—she sticks to the music from her most recent three albums (Hejira, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, Mingus), though she closes the night with an entertaining version of Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers’ “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?,” on which she’s joined by the vocal groups the Persuasions, and a performance of her own “Woodstock.” Jazz guitarist Pat Matheny also joins her during the concert, adding stinging guitar licks.

The Asylum Albums (1976-1980) testifies to Joni Mitchell’s ceaseless inventiveness, ingenuity, and creativity. These albums illustrate that Mitchell kept traveling down her own paths, usually the ones she made for herself, and that she shared with us her revelations and her expansive musical vision.


 The Asylum Albums (1976-1980) box set is available HERE


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