Friday, February 27, 2015


Joni Mitchell, 1973 by Henry Diltz
If you ask different people what their favorite Joni Mitchell album is, the answer will likely depend on their primary preferred musical genre. If they enjoy Jazz, they'll pick "Hejira" or "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter". Folkies will go for earlier classics like "Blue" and "Ladies Of The Canyon", and those who like Rock will almost always choose "Court & Spark" as their go-to Joni album, although some crossover rebels will pick "For The Roses" or "The Hissing Of Summer Lawns". All are fine choices, as Joni Mitchell had an ever-evolving run of musical creativity and profound originality that engaged several different audiences; confusing some while enthralling others, often simultaneously.

Following the success of "For The Roses" in late 1972, Mitchell decided to spend the whole of 1973 writing and recording a new album that revealed her growing interest in new sounds, particularly those involving Jazz. Her stage appearances were far fewer than in previous years, as Joni performed a grand total of 3 shows in '73. She spent the majority of that year creating "Court & Spark", her 6th album, which was released in January of 1974.

There's no arguing that "Court & Spark" was the record that took her already successful career to superstar heights. Both critics and the public enthusiastically embraced the album, and success was reaffirmed when a 45 of "Help Me", was released in March. It received heavy radio airplay and became Mitchell's first and only Top 10 single in the Billboard charts, peaking at #7 on the Hot 100 in the first week of June, and reaching #1 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary charts. "Court & Spark" went on to be a big seller that year, peaking at #2 on the Billboard album charts, and holding that position for four weeks. It was kept from the top spot by three other albums that reached #1 during that time: Bob Dylan's "Planet Waves", Barbra Streisand's "The Way We Were" and John Denver's Greatest Hits. The album nonetheless became the pinnacle of Mitchell's commercial success.

At the 1975 Grammy Awards, "Court & Spark" was nominated for Album Of The Year honors, which went to Stevie Wonder's "Fulfillingness' First Finale". The single "Help Me" was also nominated for Record Of The Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, but didn't win either. Perhaps as a consolation prize, or perhaps not, another track from the album, "Down To You", did take home a Grammy in the category of Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s). It's not like the Grammys have any sort of reputation for being out of touch and missing the boat on anything, but truly, Stevie was on quite a roll in the 70's.

"Court & Spark" explored plenty of interesting new territory as the grooves wound their way through the album. But at the end of Side 2, things took a swingin' comic turn with the rapid fire lyric of "Twisted", a perfect album closer that lent a sly touch of needed humor to these wonderful, but fairly serious musical proceedings. "Twisted" gave as much, or even more of a clue to Joni's newfound path than the other songs on the album did. It even included a brief cameo from Cheech & Chong, whose pothead humor was, pardon the expression, peaking at the time. "Twisted" fast became a fan favorite. I well remember a group of girls on our high school bus singing it to each other at the top of their lungs, and laughing like the giggly schoolgirls they were. I'll bet they still sing along with it to this day.

Dave Lambert, Jon Hendricks, Annie Ross
"Twisted" was lovingly adapted by Joni from the original recording by Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, a popular vocal trio that had a relatively short run together, but made a giant impact on how vocals could be used in Jazz. Furthering the pioneering work of Ella Fitzgerald, their harmony work evolved into a style they called Vocalese. The idea behind their technique was to compose real lyrics and match them to written out instrumental solo parts, which was an arresting and innovative thing to hear at the time. To match up scat singing with precise lyrical poetry was far more difficult than it sounds.

Dave Lambert, Jon Hendricks and Annie Ross applied their style beyond the usual intimacy of a small combo to full big band arrangements. Their sharp and witty vocals, energetic delivery, and stupendous harmonies took the Jazz world by storm, making instant stars of the three performers and inspiring a host of similar acts, such as The Hi-Los, The King Sisters, and eventually, The Manhattan Transfer, who would likely not have existed in the form they did without the influence of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. (The Transfer did a terrific album called "Vocalese" in 1985 that featured both Jon Hendricks and Bobby McFerrin).

Beginning as a duo in the mid-50's, Lambert and Hendricks decided to take on the challenging music of Count Basie. Their daring plan called for the use of a 12 man vocal choir to recreate full Basie arrangements, with one singer representing one instrument. Unable to find enough talented vocalists who could sight read music, they decided to hire studio singers and contacted Jazz vocalist Annie Ross to coach them. The results were disastrous and the idea of using a choir was dropped. Unwilling to give up, Lambert and Hendricks decided to experiment with the relatively new process of studio multi-tracking to create the same effect. They asked Ross to help. Ross could not sight read music but knew the original Basie recordings by heart.

When their debut recording, "Sing A Song Of Basie" was finally released in 1957 by ABC/Paramount, it became a smash hit. An equally successful follow-up album ensued, with Basie himself supporting the trio. The three singers were now in high demand. In 1959, they decided to take a different direction. Realizing the limits of multi-tracking for live performance, they abandoned it and hired a rhythm section. The resulting effort earned them even greater accolades. The trio then recorded four more albums together on the Columbia label, and also pursued solo projects.

By 1962, Annie Ross had tired of touring and called it quits. Lambert and Hendricks choose Yolande Bavan for the impossible job of replacing Ross. Lambert, Hendricks & Bavan recorded three albums for RCA. None were as successful as those of the previous trio, and the group broke up in 1964. Sadly, Dave Lambert was killed in a car accident in 1966. Jon Hendricks continues to perform. Annie Ross also continued singing and working in films.

Here is the original 1960 recording of "Twisted" by Lambert, Hendricks, and mostly, Ross. The music was composed by Wardell Gray, and Annie Ross wrote the scatty lyric. Enjoy!

"Twisted" can be found on this excellent CD reissue at Amazon. It's a good one to have, as it contains 3 of their best Columbia albums in one reasonably priced 2 disc set. There's also an interesting import boxed set that's certainly affordable, but I can't vouch for the packaging or sound quality. Either way, the innovative music of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross is well deserving of your time and effort to seek out and immerse yourself in.

Much like Bob Dylan's "Blood On The Tracks", Joni Mitchell's "Court & Spark" is a terrific place to begin your collection of her work, as you can proceed either forward or back from there. Some of her earlier works like "Blue", "Hejira", "Ladies Of The Canyon" and of course, "Court & Spark" have already been reissued on 180 gram vinyl through Rhino/Warner Brothers.

If you should happen to have none of Joni's amazing recordings on your shelves, you may want to take the plunge and pop for this wonderful 10 disc box set that contains all of her recordings for Reprise and Asylum, packaged in mini LP jacket reproductions, and all of them freshly spiffed up sonically for your enjoyment. You'll need a magnifier to read the lyrics, but less than $38 including shipping, that's a per-disc price you shouldn't pass up.

For those of you that are fans of Joni's earlier, more Folk-oriented work, you'll want to check out the the recently released "Live At The Second Fret", a 1966 coffeehouse performance recorded by Philadelphia's Temple University radio station WRTI. The audio isn't perfect, but still rather good, considering the age of the source tapes. It's circulated for decades as a bootleg, but is just now getting a semi-official release. Just the same, I'd pick it up before someone changes their mind and files an injunction.

1 comment:

  1. Very nice review. Yes, Court & Spark is my favorite Joni Mitchell LP and "Twisted" is a favorite cut, along with "Raised on Robbery." (Tom Scott's contributions should go unnoticed here). This was also a nice intro to Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. Thanks.