52 Weeks, 52 Moments in Music: WEEK SEVEN

Week 7: When Joni Met Jaco

Music has the magical ability to link with personal experiences and be burned into your psyche forever. Musical deja vu is a beautiful thing and for me, it is something that I always try to explore. What is it about certain songs that make them stick with you through life? How do songs, albums or even snippets of lyrics cling to people, their memories and experiences in life. Through this project, which I will update on a weekly basis, I hope to explore the musical moments that have stuck with me over the years and get to the essence of what makes them memorable. It’s a chance to explore my old (and new) favorites and hopefully shed a new light on what makes them so unique. 52 weeks, 52 moments in music that shaped who I am today.


“Hejira”

Joni Mitchell

Album: Hejira

1976

Asylum Records


“Music expresses that which can not be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.” Victor Hugo


During my senior year of high school my budding interest in jazz music had come full circle. I played drums alongside two electric violinists in, dare I say, an eclectic seven-piece jazz combo. I was enrolled in a full-year jazz studies course (something of a rarity for a high school), and I regularly raided the public library’s respectable jazz CD collection. With the limit set at ten albums per visit, I could walk away with more than enough to soak up in a week, and I ultimately pieced together a fairly comprehensive collection of “burned” albums.


It was in my senior year that I first gave hip-hop a chance. It was the year I seriously dove into Bob Dylan’s catalogue and it was the year I discovered Jaco Pastorius. For most, Jaco is hardly a household name, but rather his is a tragic tale in the music world–a master of his craft, a musicians musician, cut short in his prime by a tragedy that still puzzles his admirers.


Arguably one of the greatest electric bass players to have ever picked up the instrument, period, Jaco got his start in the light jazz fusion ensemble, Weather Report, but quickly established himself as a leading force, releasing two solo studio albums and collaborating with a number of artists in and outside of the jazz world. That this legend would die from injuries contracted in a mysterious bar brawl in Southern Florida, makes the story all the more tragic.


I first became privy to Jaco’s self-titled debut album one day when I entered the jazz practice room of my high school’s music department to find a number of my peers hovered around a stereo blasting Jaco’s rendition/mash-up of Herbie Hancock’s “Kuru/Speak Like a Child” through the room’s significant sound system. Awe was understood.


That afternoon I picked up the CD version of Jaco Pastorius at the bookstore and spent the evening listening as Jaco turned the fretless electric bass guitar into a lead instrument.


His ability of combining traditional bass lines with melodic, tender harmonic chords to create entire, unaccompanied compositions on the bass changed the game for bass players everywhere. Not to go overkill on the praise, but it’s fair to say that without Jaco’s contribution to music, Flea from The Red Hot Chili Pepper’s, The Minutemen’s Mike Watt, Vic Wooten, and other prolific masters of the instrument may have never found their way. He’s that important.


In 1976, as Pastorius unleashed his debut masterpiece, he also started what would end up being a four-record collaboration with folk singer Joni Mitchell, starting with her underrated album, Hejira.


I had grown up with Mitchell’s Blue and Court and Spark, easily the siren’s two greatest achievements, but was unfamiliar with her forays into the jazz world until I stumbled upon copies of Hejira and 1979’s Mingus at the aforementioned library’s audio/visual department.


I didn’t link the two artists until I actually played the album and instantly heard what had to be Jaco’s tender bass harmonics coupled with Mitchell’s equally tender vocals. The four tracks that Jaco played on–”Coyote,” “Hejira,” “Black Crow” and “Refuge of the Roads”–are in my opinion four of the greatest musical parings out there.


Two masters of their individual crafts producing music of such beauty; it was enough to leave me wide-eyed. While Joni can make her pipes weep with melancholy, Jaco figured out how to do the same on the fretless bass.


It makes sense that Mitchell sought out Jaco (or vice versa). Both have extremely distinct sounds, and Mitchell has always walked the fine line between folk and jazz with her music, eventually devoting whole records to the genre she adores (she name checks “strains of Benny Goodman” on Hejira’s title-track and would later pay her respects to Charles Mingus on Mingus).


While slightly flawed as a whole album, Hejira is definitely one of the Mitchell’s most fascinating efforts. Written almost entirely on the road as Mitchell drove from Maine to Southern California, the album, which gets its name from the Arabic word for ‘journey,’ invokes images of traveling alone by car through America, a spiritual journey documented by so many artists over the years.


She paints pictures of desert landscapes, old highway motels, and on one of the album’s great standout tracks, “Amelia,” airplane vapor trails which she tags as “a hexagram of the heavens.” She’s always had a way with words.

While music journalist Ron Rosenbaum gives a strong argument for “Amelia” being Mitchell’s strongest and most intriguing song to date at Slate.com, I’ve always been moved by “Hejira,” that epic title-track that makes the best use of the Jaco/Joni marriage of sound.


On “Hejira,” Mitchell sings of “comfort in melancholy” while Jaco meanders in and out of her verses fingering his six string with the same warmth that Mitchell calls upon with her vocals and lyrics.


The beauty of jazz music has always been its language of improvisation. Most jazz standards are based around a series of simple notes. The players muse on the bridge and then each go off into their worlds playing off each other the way people share thoughts in a conversation. It’s a musical art-form that finds its finest moments in the surprises that can arise. Put a group of masters in a room and listen to the magic unfold.


On “Hejira” Mitchell sings, “I see something of myself in everyone / Just at this moment in the world.” When listening to “Hejira,” and the other three Jaco/Joni tracks on the album, it’s hard not to deny that the two artists found an instant connection in the studio. The fruit of this pairing is, in my mind, the heart of what makes Hejira such an incredible album to return to again and again. Lyrically, I still favor Blue and Court and Spark for giving the world lines like,


Oh I could drink a case of you darling

Still I’d be on my feet

–“Case of You”


I used to count lovers like railroad cars

I counted them on my side

Lately I don’t count on nothing

I just let things slide


–“Just Like This Train”


I stumbled upon Hejira shortly after diving into Jaco, (not to mention Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and Jack Johnson) and found the connection between both geniuses to be serendipitous (this was before I relied on the Internet for musical fact checking to aid my listening habits). Liner notes would confirm that what I was hearing was, in fact, Jaco, but I had no doubt in my mind.


Later on that year I stumbled upon a forgotten Herbie Hancock homage record to George and Ira Gershwin,
Gershwin’s World (1998), which features, among a number of beautiful collaborations, a Mitchell guest vocal spot on “The Man I Love.” I played it for my father who I knew was a longtime Joni fan, and he knew the minute her lush pipes poured into the microphone who it was.

Jaco and Joni have musical voices that are completely their own. While you can hear Joni’s influences on countless modern day singer songwriters, not to mention her contemporaries, Jaco’s presence still carries strong in and out of the jazz world. Both are unmistakable to ear.


Later that year I discovered Martin Scorsese’s concert film, The Last Waltz, a moving swan song performance from Bob Dylan’s great backing band,The Band and was pleasantly surprised to find Joni performing Hejira’s opener “Coyote.” It was eerie how Hejira linked together a number of my musical explorations of the time. While now I credit resources like Allmusic.com or Wikipedia as terribly informative fact-checking sites for exploring musical range, their absence that year provided me with countless surprises of collaborations that changed my perception of the music world. Suddenly jazz wasn’t just some side genre that only the hip or the old dug, but rather a music that was without genre boundaries.


Miles Davis’ foray into funk and rock, Steely Dan’s fusion of jazz instrumentation, and Joni’s pining to walk the line between folk/rock/pop/jazz were all part of a musical awakening that year. It cemented the notion that music is a universal language and while we can typecast and catalogue it into genres and sub-genres, its ultimately a form of expression that is completely unpredictable.


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Bob Dylan Album #8, John Wesley Harding


Bob Dylan Reviews
Album #8, John Wesley Harding
Columbia Records, 1967


After a life changing motorcycle accident and a series of underground recordings with The Band, Dylan went to work on his follow up to the rock world altering, Blonde On Blonde. Seven albums into what was already a prolific recording career, and 18 months since the bombshell release of Blonde, it’s safe to say expectations for Dylan were high. 

The motorcycle mishap and sudden rush of fame had left Dylan jaded with his notoriety. He was tired of his constant need to appease the masses–critics especially–and his “voice of the people” label was more of a burden than a luxury. He was tired of being in the spotlight. Tired of the constant nagging of fans, many of which would take pilgrimages to his home in upstate New York. He had a family to be with and the desire to be nothing more than a musician and songwriter.

Taking into account the work on The Basement Tapes (which it should be noted were recorded months prior to the work on John Wesley Harding but was not “officially” released until the mid 1970s) and his newfound outlook on life, it comes as no surprise that Harding is more stripped down and less stylistic than its überhit predecessor.

For fans still grinding their teeth over Dylan’s electric period, John Wesley Harding must have also been a pleasant return to the simpler days of Dylan, his guitar, and his poetry. While folkier on the surface, the music on this album is equally as complex as the electric predecessor. The energy, however, is restrained. 

The record kicks off with its title track, a story-ballad recalling the tale of real-life outlaw John Wesley Hardin. The instrumentation is sparse with a focus on Dylan’s harmonica while Dylan’s croons through the fairly straightforward lyrics. In many ways the song is a return to the Americana country folk of his early years, absent, however, of the blatant protest lyrics. 

“As I Went Out One Morning” features one of the most memorable, albeit simple bass lines in rock and roll–a rubber band twang courtesy of one Charlie McCoy, who previously lent his guitar talents to “Desolation Row.” The song itself follows suit by weaving a tale from history, possibly referencing Tom Paine, an 18th century American revolutionary. When Dylan/narrator opens by singing, “to breath the air around Tom Paine’s” the metaphor could be a slight reference to political protest however many of deemed this song (and subsequently this album) an allegory for Christianity. The story of a damsel in chains wanting to escape and the narrator seeing danger (possibly the temptation of sin) only to be saved by Paine, the song’s savior like figure. 

The trio of songs that follow–“I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine,” “All Along the Watchtower,” and “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest”–are openly pious with references to biblical figures (Bishop St. Augustine who fell to an angry mob), temptations (Judas Priest) and possibly in “Watchtower,” the Tower of Babylon and the city’s demise. 

“Watchtower” is undoubtedly John Wesley Harding’s most significant song, one that has been immortalized through countless covers, and continues to leave interpreters puzzled to its meaning. Some believe it references modern day musicians struggling with fame (Dylan being the Joker character needing to break away from the spotlight), others believe it to be a precursor to Dylan’s eventual converting from Judaism to Christianity in the mid-70s, as seen in his born-again period. 

What’s most striking about the “Watchtower” of this album is how understated the song is compared to the roaring live anthem renditions that others, including Dylan, would flesh out further down the road. That the true songwriting origins of the song are still up for debate only adds to the song’s allure and easily warrant an entire column based on the song’s controversy. 

John Wesley Harding’s second half is truly Dylan’s first foray into country music. There is a notably voice change on tracks like “Drifter’s Escape” and “Dear Landlord,” and the steel guitar notes on the album’s closers, “Down Along the Cover” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” are in-the-moment reflections of the Nashville setting, a sound that would come full circle on the radical departure of Nashville Skyline.

Musically speaking, “The Wicked Messenger” is the album’s stand out track, a fiery blues number that is a lot more complex than it appears. From the piercing harmonica trills to the falling guitar licks and jagged rhythm, the song is the one moment on the album in which Dylan truly lets loose. The song snuck into Dylan’s live sets in recent years taking on a new, more timely fierce blues incarnation that perfectly compliments his touring band of recent. 

If “The Wicked Messenger” is John Wesley Harding’s understated masterpiece, the aforementioned “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” may the one track on the record that is most out of place. Dylan has said that the album’s two closers were the only full songs written and imagined in Nashville. While musically “Baby Tonight” exudes all the sounds of Dylan’s new stomping grounds, it’s blatantly romantic lyrics would have been more welcomed on say Another Side of Bob Dylan. Ultimately the song feels like an after thought tacked onto the album at last minute. The fact that UB40 would later release a cover single of the song doesn’t bode well for its standings in Dylan’s oeuvre. 

John Wesley Harding may be one of Dylan’s most underappreciated albums to date. The average Joe is familiar with the immortal “All Along the Watchtower,” however it’s safe to say most people, light “Greatest Hits” Dylan fans included, couldn’t tell you the album the song resides on, or any of the Harding’s other memorable moments. 

What’s striking is that besides the notoriety of the album’s surprise hit, this is an unexpected and ambitious offering from Dylan during a time when the artist could have very well attempted to blow listeners away, yet again. Unlike his contemporaries at the time who were experimenting with psychedelia (The Beatles unleashed Sgt. Peppers) and budding art rock (Pink Floyd released Piper At The Gates Of Dawn), Dylan once again chose to go back to his roots, while also exploring historical and non-secular motifs throughout his lyrics. It’s classic Dylan without the grandiosity of his prior ascent to mega-stardom. Simply put the album is a concise collection of stripped down country folk songs that paved the way for future musical transformations, some welcomed, others not so much.

9/10

Essential Tracks: “As I Went Out One Morning,” “All Along the Watchtower,” “Drifter’s Escape,” “The Wicked Messenger”