WhatsUp Interview: Jazz Artist Debra Mann to Play the Music of Joni Mitchell at Narrows Sunday

Debra Mann

RI pianist and jazz singer Debra Mann is out with a new album Full Circle, The Music of Joni Mitchell, and she’s bringing her show to the Narrows Center in Fall River on Sunday, September 16.

Mann, who teaches music at Brown University and Wheaton College, has been a mainstay on the RI jazz scene for many years. We spoke with her last week about the upcoming Narrows gig.

Lifelong Fan

Mann first heard Joni’s music in a poetry appreciation class in junior high school. Like many, she was bitten by the Joni bug at a formative age. She explained her take on Mitchell’s music.

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“The arrangements on the album are adaptations of her music. I didn’t want to do Joni Mitchell exactly the way she did it, because to me, what she did was perfection, it didn’t need any kind of alteration. Since I’m a jazz musician, I felt that we had an opportunity to do something in a way that could honor her material and also honor what we do.”

Mann began playing the show at the Barrington and Warwick public libraries several years ago. “After that, it was one of things that kind of mushroomed,’ she explained. “We went down to the Katherine Hepburn Center and did a show and we did a concert at The Spire (in Plymouth, MA). We’ve presented it in many placed including the Narrows. We’re not a touring band, we did these concerts infrequently, maybe once a month.”

The CD – Full Circle


Debra Mann’s New Album Full Circle

The idea for the album, released in late August, came later. “People were asking if we had a CD, and we didn’t. So a couple of years ago, I decided to do a crowdfunding campaign because recording is an expensive endeavor. I went and learned how to do that and we successfully crowdfunded enough money to create this project,” noted Mann.

It’s quite a task to take on Joni Mitchell, one of the greatest songwriters on all time. And as any musician who’s attempted to perform her music knows, the alternate tunings, chord progressions and arrangements are challenging. Mann described the process…

“We went into the recording studio in July 2016 at Steve Rizzo’s Stable Sounds in Portsmouth – he’s phenomenal, he’s a gem that we’re fortunate to have in the area. It took about a week to do all the basic tracks and then I went in and did all the vocal overdubs.”

“Then (New Bedford jazz label) Whaling City Sound took an interest in it. I couldn’t have been more pleased because that enabled me to use my funds to spend more time in the studio knowing that they were going to be able to take it and run with it once it was done. I spent about a year working on it and really tweaking it. Steve works in a very detail-oriented way – I had never worked that way. As a jazz musician, you go in, you capture the moment, maybe mix it a little, make it very much like a live experience. In this case, we really got to kind of sculpt it a little.”

Joni at 75

It just happens that Mitchell is turning 75 in November, so the timing of the release is perfect.

If you go to the show, don’t expect a cover band experience. Mann and her band bring strong jazz sensibilities to the songs, re-working songs like “Both Sides Now” to the point where they might be hard to recognize. Others, like “Blue” and “Urge for Going” remain closer to Joni’s version.

“A lot of the music that Joni has written is slow, a lot of ballads. I was looking for songs where I could change things up. I have these musicians who are capable of really tearing it up. We’re used to hearing “Big Yellow Taxi,” a certain way. I thought it worked well to do it with a swing feel. Especially for those really iconic tunes, the most covered tunes, I wanted to do something really different,” Mann noted.

Mann also had some kind words for her label, Whaling City Sounds, based in New Bedford.

“Whaling City does a phenomenal job. Being the size they are, they’re incredibly supportive, they don’t interfere on the creative side, they give you complete control over that. They just try to get the good word out.”

For more information on Debra Mann, click here.

For details on the Narrows Center show click here.

For more on Whaling City Sound, click here.