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Joni's Mingus   Print

by Noel Coppage
Stereo Review
October 1979

Joni Mitchell's album "Mingus" is going to catch considerable flak for being ponderous where the late Charles Mingus was light-hearted, for being uptight where he was loose, and for being un-Mingus-like in general. And the flak launchers will be right, in their *own* context. I'm no Mingus expert, but my impression is that, in addition to being something of a mystic off the stage, he was a catalyst for improvisation and a sort of bridge between traditional and "modern" (as in far-out) jazzmen on the stage. No doubt this is connected with his having worked with Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong on the one end and Charlie "Bird" Parker on the other. Mingus kept the laymen from getting lost while giving his instrumentalists all the improvisational freedom they needed, but Joni's "memorial" album has danged near *no* improvisation.

But then it is not supposed to be a Charles Mingus album. It is a Joni Mitchell album for which Mingus wrote four melodies and doubtless provided inspiration. Mitchell, candid to a fault, would be the first to tell us she does not have an easy relationship with spontaneity. In fact she does tell us, in the notes, "I was trying to please Charles and still be true to myself. I cut each song three or four times."

"Mingus" seems mainly a continuation of the course Joni has been on (with a partly folkie hiatus in "Hegira" [sic]) ever since "The Hissing of Summer Lawns." She's been looking for a way to grow, and jazz, a very broad category indeed, has seemed to offer her the greater possibilities.

It seems to me that her experimentation these last few years has been good for her as a vocalist but has narrowed her scope as a writer. Her lyrics had much more insight in the "For the Roses" mode. The ballad tradition as modified by her (and Bob Dylan and Gordon Lightfoot and Jackson Browne and precious few others, actually) is a better format for her Joyce Carol Oates/Woody Allen/soap-opera commentary on *relationships* than one can readily wring from the conventions of jazz, which puts several things above lyrics. Musically, Joni's been toying with sound effects more than with melodies, and she still is in "Mingus." The four that Mingus wrote would serve fine as take-off points for improvisation, but instead of stretching them she has merely decorated them. The two melodies *she* wrote, those for *God Must Be a Boogie Man* and *The Wolf That Lives in Lindsey*, are themselves sketchy sound-effects hangers rather than the old swoops and sweeps of her folkie days.

But as a vocalist Joni has grown tremendously in the last few albums. Where she used to dart self-consciously into and out of falsetto, like changing gears in an old MG, she now glides with confidence over a remarkable number of notes and makes no big deal of it; it seems normal and effortless. Her voice has become, as jazz likes its voices to become, an instrument.

I find "Mingus" more listenable than "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter," although not by much. It *is* too bad she couldn't have loosened up the way Mingus himself would have. The thing is bound to lose her some of her more casual fans, who were attracted to a nice folk singer from Canada, but, like Ingmar Bergman, she has a number of diehard fans who'll hang in there, and I guess that includes me (I don't know whether I'm bragging or complaining). The most "accessible" song is probably *The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines*, which unfortunately catches Joni getting a little too cute with the lyrics. The song is about luck; just before it there's a taped comment by Mingus about how good his had generally been, but Joni's lyrics, tongue-in-cheek or not, are about how bad hers is.

In her liner notes, Joni gives credit to the musicians involved in the out-takes (surely a first in the giving-credit department); these included John McLaughlin and Gerry Mulligan. Of those who made it to the finals, so to speak, only Wayne Shorter seems to matter. Mingus having been a bassist, you'd think the bass of Jaco Pastorius (of Weather Report) would have a leading role, but here it's just another bass. On the other hand, there's something to be said for putting this tight a rein on Herbie Hancock.

Mingus died, as Joni further notes, in Mexico on January 5, 1979, at the age of fifty-six, and his body was cremated the next day. "That same day fifty-six sperm whales beached themselves on the Mexican coastline and were removed by fire. These are the coincidences that thrill my imagination." Now *that*, I think, is a Mingus-like observation (or Jung-like - he called such coincidences "synchronicity"). Where jazz is concerned, I like to think Joni Mitchell is still working on it, diligently if not always efficiently, and she's by no means finished.

 

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