Review by Wayne Donnelly
Click here to e-mail reviewer
CD Stock Number: Nonesuch 79817-2
In 1998 Herbie Hancock released Gershwin's
World [Verve 314 557 797-2], a wonderful album that re-imagined many of the sounds of the late '20s and early '30s. In place of a literal recreation Hancock used A list players to filter the music that George Gershwin would have heard, and allowed them to play as if they were creating those sounds themselves. Among the tracks that worked best
was several that featured Joni Mitchell singing standards while fronting a small jazz ensemble. This experience directly led to Mitchell's year 2000 release,
Both Sides Now [Reprise 2-47620] wherein she again fronted a small, '30s styled jazz combo and sang standards mixed with reworked versions of several of her own tunes, to equally superb results. Travelogue takes this concept further in two dimensions. First, this time all 22 songs are Mitchell compositions, and second, in place of a small jazz group Mitchell is backed by a '40s styled orchestra.
Let's take up the second dimension first.
Larry Klein, Mitchell's long time bassist, producer and husband of some years until a divorce in 2000 or so did the orchestration and production.
I imagine that part of the goal was to recreate an updated Nelson Riddle styled setting for Mitchell's songs, which is a tall order indeed. I wish I could say that Klein was up to it, but I cannot. Song after song begins the same way, follows the same architecture and ends in the same climax. Nuance is not Klein's strong suit, and the songs that rely on that trait least are the ones that come off best. Take Slouching Towards Bethlehem. The original gave us Mitchell in fine voice reciting the Yeats poem to excellent accompaniment. The lyric, while forceful and wonderfully visual, is not exceptionally subtle. This version replaces the synth of the original with strings and then falls into the pace with her first version, in fact they differ in length by only 16 seconds. It works, but is not a dramatic departure from the original.
That last point is a continued criticism of the album. Track after track clocks in at just a handful of seconds longer than their originals. It is as if Klein had but a single idea - Strings! - and set to work on that alone, forgoing any other imagination. The shame is that he called in several great soloists to spice the odd track up, people like Wayne Shorter, Kenny Wheeler, Billy Preston and Paulinho
DaCosta, but each ends up standing out as all too brief moments of color against a nearly static musical background.
The song selection itself is quite varied, with tracks from every phase of Mitchell's career, and could have produced a though-provoking album. The majority of the songs are lesser known gems like
"The Dawntreader", "Chinese Café" and "Good Must Be A Boogie
Man" and are perfect candidates for a thorough reworking. Again, it is a shame that Klein plays it so straight so much of the time.
As for Joni, her voice clearly shows the cumulative effects of years of smoking. Thin, and cracked at the top, it shows age and hard-won wisdom. This voice worked perfectly on
"Both Sides Now", but against the overly rich orchestration employed here, it comes off poorly. Mitchell has always used phrasing to her great advantage, slipping behind the beat, jumping ahead, darting above and below a note to add nuance to her already rich lyrics. Here Klein asks her to keep the beat and stay, for the most part, at the top of her range, both of which fail to use her skills to their best.
In the end, all I can say is that it would have been better for us had the Mitchell-Klein divorce been a bitter one, perhaps even along the lines of that of Richard and Linda Thompson. Okay, perhaps it would not have been good for them, but had it at least forced them apart in the studio then we might have gotten some one like Herbie Hancock to produce this album instead. Now
that would have been something!
Sound Quality: 80