Joni Mitchell: The Asylum Albums (1972-1975) (JMA/Asylum/Rhino, 4 CDs). In 1972, fresh off the success of her album “Blue,” Mitchell switched from Reprise to Asylum Records and began her movement to a more jazz-influenced style. This set includes her first four Asylum records: “For the Roses” (1972, 40:20), “Court and Spark” (1974, 36:56), the live “Miles of Aisles” (1974, 78:01) and “The Hissing of Summer Lawns” (1975, 42:41). All have been remastered by Bernie Grundman for this latest installment of the Joni Mitchell Archives. The set has a wonderful color painting by Mitchell as its cover. Grundman also did the original mastering for “The Hissing of Summer Lawns” back in 1975.

“For the Roses” was Mitchell’s fifth studio album and featured the hit “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio,” which ironically was written sarcastically, as the record company requested a radio-friendly song. Reportedly, several of the songs were influenced by her then-relationship with fellow folksinger James Taylor, particularly “Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire,” which was about Taylor’s heroin addiction and the sweet release of the drug through the cold blue steel of the needle. In “Barandgrill,” she is at an eatery where the waitresses discuss zombies. “Let the Wind Carry Me” is jazzy and based on her adolescence in Canada.

In all, it is a very personal album, full of elegant language, nice instrumentation and vocals and melodies that beguile. The closing “Judgment of the Moon and Stars” was inspired by Beethoven.

One of her most popular albums, and one of my all-time favorites, “Court and Spark,” followed in 1974 and earned four Grammy nominations, including one for Best Album and another for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female. The song “Help Me,” with its lovely harmony vocals, also was nominated. Other classic songs are the piano-heavy title track about a new relationship, “Free Man in Paris” with backing vocals by David Crosby and Graham Nash and electric guitar by Jose Feliciano, as well as wonderful lyrics, and the rollicking “Raised on Radio” with Robbie Robertson on guitar. Another lyrically fine song is “People’s Parties,” with its wonderful midway vocal arrangement.

“Same Situation,” which has strings, is about seeking a lover’s approval and love unending while “struggling for higher achievement.” Lively horns open “Car on a Hill” and again there is a wow vocal arrangement midway. Mitchell and Tom Scott won the Grammy for Best Arrangement Accompanying a Vocalist for “Down to You,” which opens with solo piano, has lovely vocals, and ends with strings. The album ends with a rare cover, that of the jazzy vocalize of “Twisted,” first recorded in 1952 by Annie Ross and here featuring a small bit by comedians Cheech & Chong.

The live “Miles of Aisles” includes many of her hits, including “Big Yellow Taxi,” “Woodstock,” “Cactus Tree,” “Real Good for Free” and “Carey,” as well as “The Circle Game” and “Both Sides Now,” that were first recorded by other folk performers. Judy Collins most notably had a hit with “Both Sides Now.” In fact, when I saw Mitchell perform at Northwestern University’s Cahn Auditorium in January 1969, she was mostly known as the writer of “Both Sides Now,” having only had one album out herself. As she did at the time, she performed solo – I recall her wearing a cowgirl dress – but for the tour captured on “Miles of Aisles,” she had backing musicians, namely the L.A. Express, for the first time.

For 1975’s “The Hissing of Summer Lawns,” Mitchell was much more into jazz and expanded instrumentation. Highlight “The Jungle Line” uses a field recording from Africa of the Drummers of Barundi and has been called the first commercially released song to include sampling. Also good is “In France They Kiss on Main Street,” which actually reflects her coming of age in Canada during the early rock and roll era. She overdubs her own voice many, many times for the choir on “Shadows and Light.” Overall, the album features strong, thoughtful lyrics but much of the music has less impact than her earlier work. The album received one Grammy nomination for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female. Grade: overall box set A

Corky Siegel’s Chamber Blues: More Different Voices (Dawnserly Records, CD, 58 min.). Blues harmonica legend Siegel expands his Chamber Blues String Quartet (Jaime Gorgojo, Dave Moss, Chihsuan Yang, Jocelyn Butler Shoulders) with guests Frankie Donaldson, Sam Lay, Ernie Watts, Sandeep Das, Marcy Levy (aka Marcella Detroit), Matthew Santos and Sons of the Never Wrong for this new album. The new voices are Ernie Watts (two-time Grammy-winning saxophonist), Frank Orrall (Poi Dog Pondering), Marcella Detroit (Shakespears Sister), Pavel Roytman (a Ukrainian cantor, singing a Jewish chant for peace), Alligator Records’ blues star Toronzo Cannon, country blues singer Tracy Nelson and diva Lynne Jordan.

Always pushing boundaries, Siegel’s Chamber Blues experiment continues the compositional interweaving of blues and classical in the form of his blues sonata and concerto adventures. He also reaches across the musical spectrum to explore the joyful diversity of other genres. In general, the blues and classical sounds mix well, but sometimes the vocals distract a bit.

Siegel’s “No One’s Got Them Like I Do” opens the album with a vocal by Jordan. It actually is Siegel’s fourth version of the song, which also was prepared as a symphonic blues sonata for Arthur Fiedler and the San Francisco Symphony for a 1976 performance. It is followed by the bubbly “Insurance,” written and sung by Cannon, with funny, but unfortunately true, lyrics. The aptly named “Joyful Jambalaya” is a joyful jam, while the lengthy (10:23) “Oasis” is a wonderful musical journey, flavored of India with tabla played by Kalyan Pathak. The piece is played by saxophonist Watts, who cowrote it with Jeremy Monteiro.

In a press release, Siegel says he “wanted Kaylan to offer more ornamentation on all of the works (rather) than a simple groove and back beat, to bring out more interesting tabla sounds.” Pathak created all the tabla arrangements on the album.

Nelson wrote “Down So Low,” on which she sings and plays piano, accompanied only by a string quartet. The bonus track is a remastered version of Siegel’s children’s poem, “Penguins in the Opera House.” Siegel narrates, while the music and arrangement is by Hans Wurman. Grade: B

John McCutcheon: Leap! (Appalseed, CD, 55 min.). Starting in March 2020, fresh from his 12th Australian tour, McCutcheon settled into homelife and wrote. And wrote some more. This is his third album of songs written during the pandemic. “These are not songs about the pandemic, they are songs because of the pandemic,” the multiple-Grammy-nominated McCutcheon muses in a press release. It is his 43rd album overall.

The 18-song collection covers lots of ground, from backroad Appalachian to Belfast (the strong “The Troubles,” about neighbor fighting neighbor), from a door-to-door salesman (“Fuller Brush” – remember them) to a refugee immigrant’s first day of work waiting outside a steel mill (“The Third Way”), from a 9-year-old at recess (“Recess”) to a chance meeting in a New York subway (“Kora on the Subway”). “Second Hand” honors the passing of Greece’s oldest Holocaust survivor, Esther Cohen, who spent her life recounting her experiences to school children. The funniest song is “The Song When You Are Dead,” about a commissioned eulogy, which includes such lines as, “I am composing at the same time you are decomposing.”

McCutcheon’s storytelling is legendary as he elevates moments great and small from the ordinary to the extraordinary, all delivered with his warm baritone.

His long-time bandmates include fiddle ace Stuart Duncan, who is omnipresent as a lyrical and emotive element on nearly every song, keyboardist Jon Carroll and bassist JT Brown. Guest artists include drummer Robert “Jos” Jospé and guitarist Pete Kennedy, longtime McCutcheon collaborators, Irish flutist Seamus Egan and singers Kathy Mattea, Tim O’Brien, and Tommy Sands. Grade: B+

Tom Von Malder of Owls Head has reviewed music since 1972, just after graduation from Northwest-ern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He has reviewed videos/DVDs since 1988.

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