On inspection, Joni Mitchell is by far one of the most downplayed artists of her generation. Typically, it’s the 1960s boho singer-songwriter phase that we tend to focus on. That period certainly saw her produce many of the tracks she is known for today, including ‘Both Sides Now’ and ‘Big Yellow Taxi’. But, those songs represent just one portion of an immensely rich and varied career. For me, Mitchell only gets better with age.
Towards the final years of the 20th century, she seemed to come into her own, at which point, she began releasing some of her most experimental and fascinating recordings. Starting with 1994’s Turbulent Indigo and followed by 1998’s Taming The Tiger, an album which proved to be one of the most creatively rewarding, Mitchell grew. the record also features one of Mitchell’s favourite of her own songs — no small thing considering the sheer magnitude of her output.
That 1998 album opens with a track that is almost impossible to place, standing in complete contrast to the folk-ish meanderings of her early records. Less a song and more a landscape that the listener steps into, ‘Harlem in Havana’ conjures an intricate web of sampled balafon and big band jazz that Mitchell riffs over all the flair of Bille Holiday. Indeed, when she released Taming The Tiger, nobody knew quite what to make of that opening track. It seems so self-referential, so tied to Mitchell’s own experiences. And yet, it still invites the listener in with such warmth.
Recalling the inspiration behind ‘Harlam Havana’, Mitchell once recalled one of her childhood summers when she still lived in Canada. “The highlight of the summer, when I was growing up in Saskatoon, Canada, was the week the fair came to town,” she began. “At the end of the mile-long midway, there were two adult, Vegas-style shows – Club Lido and Harlem In Havana. Parents seemed to be scared by Harlem In Havana. ‘Don’t let me catch you there!’ Every kid I knew got that instruction. Every hour or so (if you wanted to), you could hear the barker shouting through the roar of the crowds and rides, ‘Step right up folks – it’s Harlem In Havana time!’”
For Mitchell, the call of this forbidden world was irresistible. “When I heard this, I’d go running – to see the band file out – horns in hand – and seat themselves behind the blue and silver music stands. They’d begin to play this brassy, stripper groove – so slow and humid. Then, out came the girls – black girls – some chewing gum – and they’d begin to move – slowly – flipping their capes open and closed to the beat – like they had done a million times – a tired, bored tease.”
Decades later, when Mitchell was asked to choose some of her favourite songs of all time, she made the decision to put ‘Harlem In Havana’ on her list, a song that celebrates the innate wonder of childhood and contains the seeds of Mitchell’s enduring fascination with jazz music. “I stuck my song in here besides ‘Jeep’s Blues’, just for fun – just to check something out. I didn’t intend to, but I left it here – between Johnny Hodges and Louis Jordan – because somehow it fits,” she concluded.