Court and Spark: Reinterpreting Joni Mitchell
29th October 2016
The Verdict, Brighton
The title of Brighton musician Lucy Pickering’s project: Court and Spark is from the 1974 album of the same name by Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell.
As a long-standing Joni admirer (one is supposed to refer to artists by their surname but ‘Mitchell’ just won’t cut it here!) I was intrigued when Sussex Jazz Magazine asked me to review this second outing of an innovative venture to reinterpret a number of Joni Mitchell songs from some of her inspirational albums. These significant works span some twenty-five years – from the seventies to the nineties: Court and Spark (1974), Hejira (1976), Night Ride Home (1991), Turbulent Indigo (1994) and Taming the Tiger (1998).
The evening’s performance proved to be especially well-suited to Brighton’s intimate venue, The Verdict Jazz Club, (which seems to have also become an art gallery since my last visit). Superb pre-gig ambience.
I had imagined the audience would comprise followers of the band members (from across the south east who were especially brought together for this project) alongside Joni aficionados. It does. Lucy, on vocals and piano, has collaborated with some top-class jazz musicians: Terry Pack on bass guitar; James Osler, guitars; Milo Fell, drums and percussion, and Beccy Rork on soprano sax. So here I am at the performance. It’ll be a mix of nostalgia for some and a newness for others. The place is more or less full and the start of the gig keenly awaited.
As Lucy states, ‘Some of Joni Mitchell’s finest songs are rarely performed live’. Understandably – they’re by no means easy! And, as this project’s challenging repertoire represents the artist’s growth and change through diverse genres and influences (folk, jazz, alternative rock…), I am excited to hear this reworking and hoping for an identifiable own jazz-influenced take by the band.
Lucy, it appears, has gone out of her way to choose songs that don’t immediately spring to mind, though the first title is no surprise. The performance opens with Lucy at the piano for Court and Spark and our attention is hooked. With exquisite use of percussion by Milo Fell and a compelling underpinning by Terry Pack on bass there is a textural build. Add James Osler on guitar, Lucy’s vocals and a riveting solo on soprano sax by Beccy Rork, and the scene is set for the rest of the evening. The band is strong, tight, and it’s clear that the amount of work put into this is yielding results.
With a natural and unaffected stage presence, multi-instrumentalist Lucy (with a background in performance arts, opera, musical theatre, folk, pop, soul and latterly jazz) creates an easy and warm atmosphere.
The Crazy Cries of Love (Taming the Tiger) features an exciting guitar solo and the inventive bass and drums train-chugging soundscape evoked by the lyrics.
The two mesmeric songs that follow are uncomfortable subject matter which Lucy says the band is ‘getting out of the way early’: Not to Blame about domestic violence (from Turbulent Indigo where justice, or the lack of it, is a major theme of the album) and Cherokee Louise (from Night Ride Home) about a childhood friend of Joni’s who suffered sexual abuse. Both are sensitively and poignantly played without over-dramatization. The band is indeed making the songs its own but without losing the essence of Joni Mitchell. This material demands attention as does the rest of the programme. Within the sensitive playing and superb solos from all musicians there is, all-at-once, a sense of respect, fun, seriousness, communication, wit and charm. As new songs are introduced some Joni fans – obviously entranced – audibly sigh with delight!
There follow songs about love and relationships, made all the more accessible with interwoven stories about when and how they were written, and this set closes with one of my favourites, Two Grey Rooms (Night Ride Home).
As we move into the interval I think about the versatility of Lucy’s voice, her capacity for story-telling in song, her fine enunciation of a zillion lyrics and skilled piano accompaniment. These days we mostly see Terry Pack in jazz mode with a double bass and so it’s especially interesting to hear some discerning (as ever) solos from him, appropriately for these arrangements, on bass guitar. And I can see why these particular musicians were hand-picked for this ensemble, each of them crucial to the overall unique blend of sound. Every beautiful apposite solo – whether poignant and haunting (especially from Beccy) or otherwise expressive has added skilfully to the mix.
I love the second set opener – more of a can-opener! Harlem in Havana (the first of two more from Taming the Tiger) is packed full of interest from its initial atmospheric free-style build to its raw and downright dirty/swampy feel throughout. Certainly the highlight of the night for me. The second is Man from Mars, one of Joni’s later works in this venture.
Blue Motel Room is from the album Hejira. The album title is a transliteration of an Arabic word meaning ‘journey’ and I feel we have been taken on that journey this evening, one I’d be more than happy to take again.
After Ray’s Dad’s Cadillac (Night Ride Home) we come to the end of the performance with two from Court and Spark: Down to You and a spirited rocking-out Car on a Hill with the driving force of Terry’s bass and great dexterity by James on one of the three guitars he has played this evening.
We want more! We demand more!! This is granted with the encore Night Ride Home, Lucy’s favourite, and the music is full of evocative colour and texture accompanied by Milo’s sensitive placement and choice of percussion. As the sounds fade away we are left with an almost palpable sense of satisfaction.
Lucy Pickering has been working on this collection for just one year, however this evening’s delivery demonstrates her very long love affair with Joni’s songs and their place deep in her being. The whole programme was eloquently delivered and I was left hoping that this project might evolve into a recording though, as she says, ‘It’s just a matter of working out the logistics of five very busy people to try and make that happen.’
I found it to be a classy, ego-less performance and I make no apology for the obvious reflection that we the audience were both courted and sparked. And we clearly loved it.