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On her twentieth album, Joni Mitchell makes the most radical departure of her long and varied career, reinventing herself as a husky-voiced jazz diva.
The 56-year-old composer of “Woodstock” has temporarily abandoned songwriting in favor of interpreting the jazz and pop standards of earlier eras. Swathed in lush arrangements for big band and symphony orchestra (ranging from 22 to 71 pieces), Mitchell steps back in time to explore “You’re My Thrill,” “Stormy Weather,” “You’ve Changed,” “Don’t Go to Strangers,” “Sometimes I’m Happy,” “I Wish I Were in Love Again,” and other classics associated with Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Chet Baker, and others. Along the way, she offers enthralling down-tempo takes on two of her own classics, “A Case of You” (from her 1971 masterpiece Blue) and the album’s title track. Guest jazz artists—pianist Herbie Hancock, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, trumpeter Mark Isham—provide eloquent instrumental counterpoints. Mitchell previewed her dark age-and-smoke-deepened voice in guest performances on recent albums by Hancock (Gershwin’s World) and drummer Brian Blade (Perceptual). In the silky brass and gossamer violins of Both Sides Now, she weds that voice to a sagely programmed song cycle about the ups and downs of romantic love, from the first blush of infatuation through heartbreak and despair to rekindling the flame and finally achieving a mature sense of equanimity. It’s a startling stylistic shift by our lady of the canyon, more convincing on some songs than others, but perfect as a late night soundtrack for sentimental moods.