by Ian Mann
May 24, 2022
A labour of love for Colman, who honours Mitchell’s work with due reverence while still establishing her own stamp on it via a series of well thought out arrangements.
“Ink On A Pin – A Celebration of Joni Mitchell”
(Stoney Lane Records SLR1988)
Sara Colman – vocals, Rebecca Nash – piano, Steve Banks – guitars, Ben Markland – bass, Jonathan Silk – drums, Beth Bellis – first violin, vocals, Ning-ning Li – second violin, vocals, Natalie Mason – viola, vocals, Katy Nagle – cello, vocals
A somewhat belated review for this latest album release from the Birmingham based vocalist and songwriter Sara Colman, which was first issued in November 2021 and finds her paying homage to one of her musical heroines, the great Joni Mitchell.
Although born in Bristol Colman is most closely identified with the Birmingham music scene. She studied classical music at the city’s Conservatoire before turning towards jazz, blues and popular music, settling in the region and becoming a popular figure with jazz audiences in the Midlands and beyond.
Despite being popular with gig going audiences Colman has hitherto been rather under recorded since making her début in 1998 with the album “Spellbound”, following this with “Ready” in 2009, more than a full decade later. Both these albums focussed on jazz standards plus jazzy arrangements of pop and rock tunes by writers such as Mitchell, Paul Simon and Carole King.
Colman’s increasing fascination with the song-writing process led to her studying for an MA in the subject. The fruits of her endeavours can be heard on her third studio album “What We’re Made Of”, which was released on the Birmingham based Stoney Lane record label in 2018. This recording placed a greater emphasis on original material with Colman presenting her own songs and also working with a variety of co-writers, among them guitarist Steve Banks, pianist Rebecca Nash and recording engineer Nick Dover, with drummer Jonathan Silk providing string arrangements for some of the songs. The programme also included covers of material by Mitchell and Simon, plus a vocal setting of a Bill Frisell tune. My review of the album can be found here;
Banks, Nash and Silk all return for “Ink For A Pin” as do bassist Ben Markland and Percy Pursglove, both of whom also appeared on “What We’re Made Of”. That record also included contributions from the Carducci String Quartet, whose role is now taken over by a string quartet led by violinist Beth Bellis.
Colman has been listening to Mitchell’s music from the age of nineteen when she first moved to Birmingham and shortly afterwards discovered the 1974 Mitchell album “Court and Spark”, as her album liner notes explain;
“I was a piano student at the Conservatoire, new to the city, a little bit lonely and hungry for inspiration other than the classical music that surrounded me, and the pop that somehow wasn’t quite enough. Other new listening included Pat Metheny, Supertramp, Keith Jarrett, Dudley Moore, Fleetwood Mac - all superb and influential in their own way, however, the Court and Spark tape I borrowed from the library was consistently renewed with a new date stamp and practically worn out. I’m not sure it ever made it back.”
Colman speaks of Mitchell’s “unfailing ability to write songs that are uniquely personal and yet universal. My awareness has deepened as I discover more about what inspired her to write them, as they have inspired countless jazz musicians before me. Often with Joni, in writing about something in her life, she seems to encapsulate the very thing that you yourself are experiencing. Genius.”
Colman has covered Mitchell songs before with “All I Want” appearing on “What We’re Made Of”.
This latest album introduces seven new arrangements of Mitchell songs sourced from a variety of Mitchell albums, including, inevitably “Court and Spark”.
The “Ink On A Pin” project (the title comes from a line in the Mitchell song “Blue”) was conceived in 2019 when Colman took up a position as “Recording Artist in Residence” at Birmingham Conservatoire. This represented an opportunity for Colman to “make use of the state of the art facilities at the new Conservatoire building and for the music technology students to have the chance to work with me in various musical scenarios”.
The bulk of the album was recorded in January 2019 during a visit to the Wood Room at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios near Bath where Colman’s students were able to observe the studio in action as Colman and her ten piece band recorded their interpretations of the Mitchell songs that they had been working on, including arrangements that added strings and extra voices.
The recording facilities at the Conservatoire were also utilised with a version of “This Flight Tonight” being documented in March 2019. It was to be a further two years before “My Old Man” completed the album in June 2021.
The Real World sessions were recorded ‘live in the studio’, allowing the band to capture what Colman describes as “that elusive ‘in the moment’ quality”.
The album commences with a whole band arrangement of the title track from “Court and Spark”, with Colman’s jazz inflected vocals remaining true to Mitchell’s spirit in an arrangement paced by Silk’s colourful but sensitive drumming. Nash is the featured instrumental soloist with a passage of flowingly lyrical piano. Colman and Nash frequently perform together as a duo, while another Colman project, Motion Slow teams her in a trio with Silk and multi-instrumentalist Nick Dover.
Colman and Banks arranged the version of “Chelsea Morning”, sourced from Mitchell’s 1969 recording “Clouds”. This features a more obviously ‘jazzy’ arrangement with Banks’ jazz guitar chording and Pursglove’s flugel to the fore. Pursglove is the featured instrumental soloist and performs with great fluency and imagination throughout. Silk’s drumming is again a key part of the arrangement as Colman’s rendition of the lyrics evokes the optimism of the 1960s.
From Mitchell’s 1976 album “Hejira” comes “Amelia”, one of Mitchell’s most popular songs – another version appears on the live album “Shadows and Light”, which saw Mitchell backed by a stellar band of jazz musicians including Pat Metheny, Jaco Pastorius, Lyle Mays and Don Alias.
Colman’s interpretation features a band arrangement with additional string parts written by Silk. There’s a yearning, mournful quality about the singing and the playing, expressed through Colman’s soulful vocals, the lushness of the strings and the lyrical soaring of Pursglove’s flugel, designed to emulate the flight of an aeroplane.
From 1971’s “Blue”, perhaps the most famous Mitchell album of them all, comes “This Flight Tonight”, arranged here by Colman and Banks. Recorded at a different session it’s a pared down performance featuring only Colman’s voice and Banks’ acoustic baritone guitar, variously plucked and strummed. The intimacy of the performance works well, its sparseness contrasting effectively with the sumptuousness of the previous “Amelia”. The exposed setting also allows the listener to appreciate Colman’s voice all the more. As I’ve observed in previous reviews, she’s a class act and an excellent interpreter of a song.
“Down to You” is a second song from “Court and Spark” and features a band arrangement plus Silk’s writing for strings. Colman sings the achingly sad lyric with appropriate gravitas, that mournful quality again enhanced by Silk’s string arrangement and Pursglove’s velvety flugel.
From the 1970 Mitchell album comes “Woodstock”, arguably Mitchell’s most famous song. A pared down introduction featuring Nash’s piano and Silk’s mallet rumbles initially gives the song the feel of a lament for a lost era. But the addition of the voices of the members of the string quartet helps to bring a sense of optimism and help to give the song something of a gospel feel, the sentiments of “we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden” now seeming even more important in this time of climate change. There’s still hope, as expressed in Nash’s sparkling piano solo and a stunning acapella section featuring the voices of Colman and the string players. Arranged by Colman herself this is a brilliant new version of this much loved song.
The album concludes with a version of “My Old Man” from the “Blue” album, played by the duo of Colman and Nash. One of Mitchell’s most disarmingly simple love songs it was allegedly written for Graham Nash, no relation to Rebecca as far as I know. Long term associates Colman and Nash perform the song with a warm and easy intimacy, achieving beauty through relative simplicity.
Like its predecessor, “What We’re Made Of”, this album has clearly been a labour of love for Colman, who honours Mitchell’s work with due reverence while still establishing her own stamp on it via a series of well thought out arrangements.
Whether a whole new collection of Mitchell tunes is strictly necessary is a moot point, but nevertheless the album is undoubtedly a success on its terms and I can see why Colman wanted to get these arrangements of Joni songs ‘out there’.
Nevertheless, as much as I admire Mitchell’s music I’d still prefer to hear Colman singing her own material and hope that she hasn’t abandoned the journey that she began on “What We’re Made Of”. Hopefully there will be a renewed focus on Colman’s own songs the next time she enters the recording studio.
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