How one bass player's love for Joni Mitchell led to a once-in-a-lifetime adventure
The influential writer/musician Greg Tate, who joined the ancestors just before we went to press, once joked that the only people he knew who liked Joni Mitchell were Black folks, “like ourselves and Prince and Seal and Cassandra Wilson.” A rogue scholar and singularly gifted cultural critic, Tate understood Joni’s circuitous path through Black music — and the similarly circuitous paths some of us took to get to her.
Like many seekers of Joni’s generation, my parents turned to the East in the 1970s, which meant that I grew up immersed in Sanskrit mantras and folk percussion at communes in the U.S. and a boarding school in North India. I was forbidden to engage with anything that did not pertain to spiritual matters, which was quite a challenge for a hyperactive young drummer coming of age in Miami Beach in the 1980s.
My duties as a novice Hare Krishna priest kept me busy, but when I could, I visited the nearby public library to check out sci-fi and explore new additions to the cassette collection. Up to that point, my experience of Western music had been fleeting but formative: Miles, Coltrane, and Grover Washington Jr., followed by snatches of the Eagles at an L.A ashram, Captain & Tennille on a Pan Am flight to New Delhi, and a mid-’80s mixtape that was quickly confiscated by my boarding-school teachers.
So it was at the library, against the backdrop of Miami Vice and Tom Clancy novels, that I discovered Wild Things Run Fast, Dog Eat Dog, and what was then Joni’s new album, 1988’s Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm. Her music had the same pop sheen as everything else I was learning to love, but Joni was like a painter who had mastered color combinations no one else had thought of. When Night Ride Home came out in 1991, I played it on repeat and then borrowed Mingus, Hejira, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, and Shadows and Light from my college music library. I reveled in Joni’s voice, her phrasing, her lyrics, and the characters that populated her instantly identifiable harmonic universe. She was my gateway drug, too: Through Joni, I found my way to Jaco’s self-titled debut, Pat Metheny’s Bright Size Life and ECM, Heavy Weather-era Weather Report, pre-“I Feel for You” Chaka Khan, Mingus Ah Um, the Brecker Brothers, the Crusaders, The Band’s The Last Waltz, Don Alias’ special swing, and the genius of Wayne Shorter. When I finally connected the dots (Oh, that’s who Prince was name-dropping in ‘The Ballad of Dorothy Parker!’), my synapses exploded in a way that could only happen in a pre-Google universe. I bought my first bass shortly thereafter, and life has never been the same.
As an unapologetic Pastorius fanatic, I was impressed with how Larry Klein forged his own relationship to Joni’s music despite Jaco’s larger-than-life imprint. I absorbed the gorgeous but somber Turbulent Indigo, the upbeat Taming the Tiger, the unexpected gift of Shine, and finally, The Hissing of Summer Lawns and everything before. To my ear, Both Sides Now and Travelogue were dusky-voiced updates of the jazz singer I heard on Mingus, as well as undeniable proof of the high respect accorded to Joni by Klein, who painstakingly produced both. As I worked at one music magazine after another, I dreamt of interviewing Joni about the bass players in her past — but that seemed increasingly unlikely, especially after she was sidelined with Morgellons in 2010. My hope that talking to Klein for a Bass Player feature in 2014 might lead to a longer Joni piece was dashed when an aneurysm led her to suffer a stroke and a hospital stay in 2015. I kicked myself for not attending Joni’s star-studded 75th birthday celebration in 2018.
In January 2021, determined to snatch a victory from the jaws of this damn pandemic — and aware that I’d missed the chance to chat with Wilton Felder, who passed away in 2015, and Max Bennett, gone since 2018 — I got up the nerve to ask Klein if he’d consider curating a “bassists of Joni Mitchell” roundup for this magazine. I mentioned that it’d be extraordinary if the maestro herself gave us a quote or two, but I didn’t expect much. Larry and I eventually met for several hours over Zoom, and he agreed to ask Joni if she’d be willing to chat. The results are a dream come true.
Reading his transcriptions of their dinnertime conversations, it strikes me that these exchanges could only have happened between longtime friends; if it feels like we are eavesdropping on an intimate walk down memory lane, it’s because we are. Klein fills in the blanks, sometimes calls her “Joan,” and reminds us of the visual element of her music; Joni is warm and strong, her memory sharp as a tack as she blows minds while doling out extra love for other giants. (When I interviewed Terence Blanchard a few months ago, he recalled Herbie Hancock saying, “Joni is the only person who can talk to Wayne Shorter on his level — you have to see the two of them together!”) For this story, she read and approved every word, and it has been beyond amazing to listen to these collaborators revisit music which means so much to them and to so many fans, including me.
As I begin my third decade in music journalism, I’m glad to say that I’ve become better at recognizing special moments before they’re in the rearview mirror. This, dear reader, is one of those moments. Helping to facilitate this bass-centric reunion between two of my heroes — a masterful musician/producer and one of the 20th century’s most celebrated visionaries, muses for each other, forever connected — feels magical. Enjoy!