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SFJAZZ Gala 2015: Honoring Joni Mitchell

Songs strong enough to thrive in any context

Edward Simon, Laurie Antonioli and SFJAZZ High School All Star bassist Kanoa Mendenhall, recipient of 2015 SFJAZZ Education Award, SFJAZZ Gala 5/15
Judith Hill, SFJAZZ Gala, May 2015
Patti Austin, SFJAZZ Gala, May 2015
Wayne Shorter and Randall Kline, SFJAZZ Gala, May 2015

If SFJAZZ intended to make a definitive statement about Joni Mitchell’s deep and abiding ties to jazz by bestowing a lifetime achievement award on the ailing singer/songwriter, well, the organization missed the mark. But Friday night’s concert at the SFJAZZ Center, the centerpiece of the presenter’s annual gala fundraiser, made a far more profound and interesting case for the sheer protean nature of Mitchell’s genius.

Under the savvy musical direction of Brian Blade and Jon Cowherd, a dauntingly diverse array of musicians delivered a seamless two-hour production with nary a pause to set up or break down gear between songs. The stellar cast of instrumentalists and vocalists included no shortage of improvisational talent, but jazz wasn’t the focus or even the point of the proceedings, though Wayne Shorter was on hand to offer a brief and lovely tribute to Mitchell in accepting the award for her (while giving a tantalizing glimpse of a conversation with her and Milton Nascimento some years ago). What stood out most throughout the evening was how Mitchell’s music was served best by idiosyncrasy, as the most radically personal interpretations of her songs made the deepest impressions.

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