In early 1977, Jazz titan Charlie Mingus was ill, confined to a wheelchair by the same debilitating disease that had taken baseball star Lou Gehrig's life and that would - on Jan. 5, 1979 - eventually take his. Yet the composer-bassist's perpetually restless mind was still reaching out. Intrigued by "Paprika Plains," a long jazz-tinged piece on Joni Mitchell's album "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter," Mingus had decided that he and the reigning queen of "poetic" rock should work together on a project.
To outsiders, and even to Mingus' prospective collaborator, the idea seemed about as unlikely as an album titled "Joan Baez Sings Charlie Parker." Mitchell had made use of such jazz artists as saxophonist Wayne Shorter and bassist Jaco Pastorius on her recent recordings - "Reckless Daughter," "Hejira," and "The Hissing of Summer Lawns" - but essentially she was still the folknik who had written "Both Sides Now" and similar, sentimentally confessional odes.
Cut now, more than two years after Mingus broached the subject, we have Mitchell's "Mingus" (Asylum), which turns out to be two-thirds of a masterpiece. A collection of six songs - four Mingus melodies to which Mitchell supplied lyrics and two pieces that are entirely her own work - it is a far more honorable, moving, and insightful achievement than anyone involved dared hope, including Mitchell, its surviving progenitor.
"Yeah," she says, "I was skeptical at first (about collaborating with Mingus). Everybody was at the onset, and if I had thought more about it, I probably would have joined the group. But I didn't think about it.
"After finishing a project, I'm always looking for something new. There's a quiet period when you just keep your eyes and ears open. So through the grapevine came the word that Charles was trying to get ahold of me. We talked on the phone, and a good rapport was set up first on Ma Bell. It was very easy to talk to him; we were both very open. I tried some of his ideas, rejected some (including Mingus' typically grandiose initial concept, a mélange that would have involved Mitchell, a symphony orchestra, and the text of T.S. Eliot's "Four Quartets"), and finally we got down to meeting in person.
"That first meeting was so much fun that I knew I had to do it. In fact, Charles gave me a deadline. He told me I had three weeks to set words to all the melodies he had written for me. Not having a background in jazz, I didn't see how I could. You've got to understand that I just don't crank out songs. I have to wait until something happens for me to depict and transcribe into my medium. But Charles' magnetism made me say yes."
The magnetism Mitchell speaks of was an essential part of Mingus' style. Applying massive doses of intimidation and charm, he set out to purge every cliché from the minds of the musicians he worked with, requiring them to play with total openness. Often he would dictate his compositions on the bandstand, telling his soloists to portray an emotion like "love" or "hate," rather than giving them a harmonic framework on which to blow.
"Charles went through some changes," she continues, "until I sent him the first song, 'A Chair in the Sky.' Then he knew I could do it. He thought 'A Chair in the Sky' was the most difficult melody he had created for me and that it had the most difficult story to tell - the things he wished he had done and the things he was going to miss. He looked at me with a twinkle in his eye like ... You know the story of Rumpelstilskin? It was like that: 'Guess the answer if you can.' So once the song emerged, everything was solidified.
"I really can't explain how intimate the process (of working with Mingus) was, how intimate and yet how reserved. In the first place it's the only time I've ever worked with anyone on a dual project. Well, that's not exactly true; I sang in a duo years ago. But that was trying to force two things to come together, whereas on this I spent a lot of time sitting around in Charles' shoes. It seems like it might have been hard for me to see his point of view, but it wasn't."
The very first track on "Mingus," "God Must Be a Boogie Man," reveals that Mitchell's confidence was not misplaced. The lyrics, adapted from the first few pages of Mingus' autobiography, "Beneath the Underdog," speak of his contradictory, multilevel personality - one self in the middle, "unmoved" and "waiting"; another self "attacking" and "so afraid"; and a third self "that keeps trying to love and trust." Not only does Mitchell's condensed version of Mingus' self-portrait have considerable poetic impact, but the simultaneously said and joyful melody she supplies for the words is worthy of the man whose soul she is portraying.
Equally successful are three of the four pieces for which Mingus composed the music and Mitchell wrote the lyrics. Both "A Chair in the Sky" and "Sweet Sucker Dance" are in Mingus' most romantic vein: harmonically complex, lush yet angular lines that sound as though several Duke Ellington ballads were being played at once. And "The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines," a sassy uptempo piece about gambling in Las Vegas, appropriately turned out to be a case of intuitive good luck.
"When I played it for Charles," Mitchell recalls, "I said 'This is a pretty loose connection. I don't know whether you're going to like this one, it's about a gambler.' 'A gambler!' he said, and proceeded to tell me all about his system with the slot machines. Apparently he was a dedicated player of the slots and a consistent winner.
"Charles heard everything on the album except for 'God Must Be a Boogie Man,' and I wish he'd heard that too. He never told me that the lyrics I wrote were wrong for his melodies. Believe me, I knew then they were right for both of us."
There are, however, two partial failures on "Mingus": "The Wolf That Lives in Lindsey" and "Goodbye Porkpie Hat." The former piece, a mordant ode about a man who "loved the ways of darkness," is all Mitchell's work, and throughout one hears the separation between melody and lyrics that so often sabotages the music called, for want of a better term, "folk rock." While the lyrics speak of "murder," "ladies of the night," and "slums," the melody soars ecstatically upward in the most inappropriate places, undercutting the impact of the words.
And "Porkpie Hat," Mingus' tribute to the late tenor saxophone giant Lester Young, fails here because Mitchell's well-intentioned lyrics define Young as a victim of racial injustice. He was to some extent, but Young also was far more than that. To speak of him solely in terms of his "underdog position" is to rob him of his individuality and make him a symbol in a game of liberal guilt.
But in the final estimate, those two false steps only make the rest of the Mitchell-Mingus collaboration seem all the more remarkable. Vividly recorded and beautifully performed by Mitchell and an ensemble that includes pianist Herbie Hancock, percussionists Don Alias and Emil Richards, and three members of Weather Report (Shorter, Pastorius, and drummer Peter Erskine), "Mingus" emerged through a lengthy process of half-starts and blind alleys. More conventionally jazzlike versions of each piece were recorded with other musicians, but Mitchell kept searching until she found the combination that was right for her.
"I recorded first with mostly Charles' choice of players," she explains, "but it wasn't contemporary enough for me. I wanted to make the album as pure as possible for his sake, but he was more of a purist than I am. He didn't think that the degree of sensitivity that finally emerged on the album could be achieved on electronic instruments.
"The earliest version of 'A Chair in the Sky,' which was very simple and spontaneous, was his absolute favorite. It was my fledgling flight in the idiom, and it had a couple of vocal flubs on it that he just loved. But I kind of overrode his judgment on that one song because there was so much musicianship on the final version.
"Of all the musicians I've ever played with, Wayne (Shorter) is the best colorist for lyrics. He has a very pictorial mind and responds intuitively to poetry. And Jaco (Pastorius) was the only bass player I used on the project who wasn't honored to be in the Mingus seat. That's why he maintains his identity. He's the baddest, right?"
Mitchell punctuates that last remark with laughter - a characteristically prim yet playful sound that suggests her quicksilver intuition, her ability to coolly and sympathetically "read" another person's soul. With those qualities in mind, one begins to understand why the volcanic Charlie Mingus decided that through her he could transmit his final musical thoughts.
A complex man of great turbulence and tenderness, Mingus always must have been searching for someone who could truly understand him while still remaining at arms' length. In Joni Mitchell, he found that person. And she, in Mingus, found the deepest soul she had yet encountered and treated him with just the right mixture of respect, insight, and independence.
"Mingus," Mitchell explains, "was a nice guy who was so nice that he was violent. It sounds contradictory, but it's really true. He was so sweet natured that the hurt ... Well, a lot of times what the world gave him in return for what he had to offer wasn't a fair trade."
And that is exactly what Mitchell's tribute to Mingus is: a fair trade. In a world where fairness of any kind is at a premium, we can all be grateful that such an exchange of gifts was able to take place.