JONI MITCHELL — Court and Spark (review)

JONI MITCHELL — Court and Spark album cover Album · 1973 · Vocal Jazz Buy this album from MMA partners
4/5 ·
Chicapah
With the stunningly pensive “Blue” album in ‘71 Joni Mitchell began to evolve out of her fragile, naïve flower-girl-folksinger-on-a-stool phase, showing a more adventurous side of herself to the world while wisely avoiding alienating any of her enraptured fan base in the process. The “For the Roses” LP was a good but somewhat predictable continuation of her musical expansion but, after a brief tour of that record, Joni took almost a year off to further develop and nurture her steadily increasing fascination with jazz. In January of 1974 she unveiled the results of her sabbatical in the form of “Court and Spark” and her impressive growth as a singer/songwriter and musician couldn’t be denied. Even conceited musicians who’d previously thought of her as a lightweight had to stop and take notice. With the help of pros like Tom Scott and Larry Carlton she was further developing a unique brand of aural art that didn’t sound like anyone else’s in the wide-open music scene that was flourishing in the mid 70s. In fact, this album would be the last that could even be figuratively related to her folksy past as subsequent releases would find her boldly (and some would say recklessly) venturing into highly eclectic and sometimes abstract territories that fewer and fewer of her flock could or even desired to comprehend. Therefore, while it may or may not be her masterpiece, “Court and Spark” unquestionably represents the apex of Mitchell’s popularity.

The title song opens the disc by displaying that Joni was still shifting her emphasis from the acoustic guitar to piano, thus widening her scope and her canvas. You can catch a glimpse of her folk roots in the tune’s melody but more obvious is her fearless combining of a myriad of genres. The number’s jazz presence is elevated by her inclusion of the great Milt Holland on the vibes. “Help Me” did wonders to advertise the album as the infectious song scaled the singles charts and peaked at #7. It’s a contemporary mixture of jazz and pop sensibilities that displayed her ongoing maturity as a lyrical songstress not hesitant to reveal her inner yearnings. Despite its many quirky kicks and accents the track maintains a nice structural flow that’s hard to criticize. “Free Man in Paris” was the FM radio equivalent to “Help Me” in that it soon found itself in heavy rotation in that (at the time) still-untamed realm. With this tune it became crystal clear that she now felt more comfortable in an ensemble setting while managing to avoid the formulaic traps so many of her contemporaries were falling into by asserting her highly individualized, bohemian creativity. Please note the delightful Spanish guitar flavors injected into the song’s atmosphere by guest musician Jose Feliciano. The slightly retro “People’s Parties” is the first tune on the record to feature an acoustic guitar up front and center along with her signature self-sung three-part background harmonies. It ends with an abrupt segue into “Same Situation,” a piano-heavy waltz that sports a jazzy chord progression and some light orchestration that adds a mysterious dimension to the mood it sets. A stronger, more aggressive groove propels the beginning of “Car on a Hill” but then it suddenly takes a strange turn midway through that’s difficult to describe. The whole song is a bit of an enigma.

While things up to this point have been entertaining enough to satisfy, the second half of the album is even better, starting with the cool “Down to You.” Her somber solo piano intro is wholly captivating yet, rather than keeping things predictable, she coyly introduces other instrumentation and jazz vocal harmonies tactfully to let the track blossom and then breathe freely on its own. This tune demonstrates her billowing artistry as well as any in the catalog of her work culled from this era. A savory jazz aroma envelopes “Just Like this Train” and that classy influence is presented in a very accessible format that’s almost R&B-ish at times. (Don’t get me wrong. Mitchell will never be mistaken for Aretha Franklin, that’s for sure!) Next is the playful “Raised on Robbery.” I don’t think Joni’s ever rocked this hard before or since but the Andrews Sisters’-styled harmonies give the song a pleasing nostalgic slant and an unavoidable charm. This cut, too, garnered a lot of airplay on the FM dial. “Trouble Child” follows and its surprisingly growling riff offers a real change of pace at this point yet it’s in no way a betrayal of her noble perspective or sound. She and her studio musicians concoct a darker, more mischievous tone that provides an essential depth to the proceedings. Mitchell finishes with her first cover, Annie Ross’ “Twisted,” and it’s a sparkling gem. Joni manages to channel Ella Fitzgerald competently here, flawlessly delivering one of her most impressive vocal performances ever. Not even the goofy utterances of then-trendy comedians Cheech & Chong can dull the tune’s brilliance. And, as a bonus, Chuck Findley’s muted trumpet is perfection.

“Court and Spark” was a resounding success. It soared up to the #2 spot on the album charts and stayed locked into that position for four weeks running, solidifying her status as a major player in the industry. As I intimated before, though, it also conclusively marked the end of Mitchell’s formative years. The clout she garnered from this record’s success presented her with a choice that many artists on her talent level must face. Either stay the cautious course and keep feeding her followers more of the same in an effort to remain in the spotlight or use the rare freedom it affords to strike out in new, riskier directions that some of their adoring crowd might not approve of. To her credit, Joni took the latter, less-traveled road and listened to her muse more closely than her accountant. Talk about a pivotal album in someone’s career, none can claim that label more honestly than “Court and Spark.”
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