Kevin Jenkins “She: A Tribute To Joni Mitchell” Reviewed
With two songs covered from one of Joni Mitchell’s great albums, 1975’s difficult artistic breakthrough, The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, two songs from Joni Mitchell’s post-jazz 1994’s Turbulent Indigo, and one off her attempt to get her Pork Pie hat in a singer songwriter frame Night Ride Home (and not the one you want, not her Joan Didion inspired “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”), the great bassist and sometime singer songwriter Kevin Jenkins may be doing many things on his She: A Tribute To Joni Mitchell, but one of them isn’t taking the easy way out. Compound that with two of the songs already performed by men, David Crosby (“Yvette In English”), Elvis Costello (“Edith And The Kingpin”), not to mention Herbie Hancock’s latter featuring Tina Turner on lead vocals, Kevin appears to be looking to mix it up a little. At second glance She appears to be Kevin’s version of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope”: putting self-inflicted limitations on the exercise. But hold on a minute, Jenkins in the man who performed the first credible revision of “Wichita Linesman” in forty years, and unless you are a deep fan you probably don’t know any of Joni’s songs on this recently released five song EP. So She doesn’t merely have to stand alone, it also has to exist as a stand alone…
Kevin brings his warm voice and distilled, jazzy vocals to arrangements that are Steely Dan filtered through country. The second track, “Yvette In English” opens with an electric guitar solo before emerging as rocking aliveness miles away from either the original or Crosby’s cover. Crosby stays close to Joni’s folk arrangement, letting his voice play the changes, Jenkins spurs it, he trots it off and falls in deep to the one night stand near the Seine, both Crosby and Joni sing it in a dream, as though the foreign country is a different state of being, Jenkin sexualizes it, he performs the seduction as a thrilling encounter with gorgeous guitars ringing like the Byrds meets the Heartbreakers (if that isn’t a tautology). Here, Kevin is less interested in a man singing a woman’s song (it’s in the third person anyway), but in desire, the way he spits out “wary little stray” is the single best moment on the EP and the fade is glorious. It sounds like Walter Becker. By the very next song, a harmonica introduces you to an Americana jazz that is actually quite original with a tinge of western vibes, it becomes clear that what Kevin approves of is song not arrangement, not even lyric more than the sound of the words. The album is full of the subtlest of touches, that’s Tomas Doncker singing back up, singing low where you expect it to be high.
When I heard about She, I was hoping for “Raised On Robbery,” “Big Yellow Taxi,” maybe especially “The Jungle Line” -a song begging for a heavy funk reworking, but my concerns, whether funk or jazz, are not Jenkins. This is Kevin’s third release, his first 2013’s Step Inside. a masterpiece of shock and awe downbeat with guest appearance from Shemekia Copeland (who he plays bass with), and one of the most wide eyed and obtuse singer songwriter efforts you will ever hear. 2015’s Til The Story Is Told, is the difficult sophomore effort heralded by a terrific somewhere between melodic and lick quotient “Spirit In The Sky” and desperate hopefulness, much like the album itself.
She is nothing if not difficult as well, Jenkins and producer Doncker seem to circle the songs, there are places on She where Joni seems to disappear from the equation, Kevin is digging deep into a melodic orchestration where everything that came before him is waiting for a next step in a genre, fusion, long time gone. Very early on, the intro to “Sunny Sunday” (Kevin’s vocals sounds so much like Donald Fagen with an edge it sets you on your heels) and the band sounds like a rock band not a jazz, funk, or soul, or folk one: an obtuse fusion band, Weather Report without the weather or the report. You think you know what you are getting yourself into but trust me, you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into till you hear it.