Mingus was originally a collaboration between lyricist Joni Mitchell and composer Charles Mingus, but Mingus died before the album's completion, thereby turning it into Mitchell's memorial to Mingus as well as a collaboration.
Mingus is considered by many to be one of the greatest jazz composers of our time. He played with jazz giants like Lester Young and great session men like Roland Kirk and booker Ervin. His music could be called avant-garde big band jazz (though the term hardly describes the complexity and variety of much of his music), and his albums Passions of a Man and Nostalgia In Times Square are classics.
Over her last three albums, Joni Mitchell has been trying to make a successful transition from popular music to jazz. Whether or not she has been successful is a matter of debate among some critics. Critic Ariel Swartley in a recent Rolling Stone was harsh in his review of this album, calling her a "babe in bopperland" and belittling her knowledge of jazz music compared to Mingus'.
He felt that she bit off more than she could chew, and that she had no business mingling with Mingus. But this kind of flack is only typical of critics who consider themselves to be jazz experts. They tend to fancy themselves as "purists", and dare not stoop to such "lower forms" of music as pop, or (heaven forbid) rock 'n roll. That Mitchell would dare to step into the world of jazz is to him, absurd and pretentious. In his review of Mingus, Swartley cuts down her singing, saying that she struggles to keep up with the jazz tempos on the album, which, according to him, leave her "huffing and quavering behind the jumpy beat." He then proceeds to quote the simplest lyrics on the lp, divorcing them from their context in order that he may deride their meaning.
He fails to take a few things into account, however. In the first place, it is very hard to write lyrics to jazz compositions - in fact, there are so few jazz recording artists today who use lyrics that you can probably count them on one hand and one foot. And in that respect, if you want to count the number of Mitchell tunes which contain great lyrics (e.g., "Song for Sharon," "Free Man in Paris," "Amelia," etc.), you will need to borrow the appendages of a few of your friends, as well as your own.
In the second place, the Mingus collaboration was Charles Mingus' idea. He contacted her. He like her stuff.
Finally, Swartley failed to understand that the main fault with Mitchell's voice on this album is not that she struggles to keep up with jazz, but rather that she just doesn't have the meat required to fill in some of the gaps left in Mingus' atmospheric compositions. This is most noticeable on "The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines" - a big band blues tune which for the most part relies on her voice to carry it through. The song has excellent lyrics and a nice horn arrangement by Jaco Pastorius, but generally fails flat because Mitchell sort of cruises through it at too cool a pace. The song would have been a success had she belted out a few of the lines, perhaps singing a little more from her throat rather than the roof of her mouth.
On the other hand, "Sweet Sucker Dance," the first cut on the second side, is a good example of what she can do with a jazz composition. Here, her voice weaves in and out of the stop 'n go rhythms of Pastorius' bass lines in a most appreciable manner. As on Hejira and some tracks from Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, Mitchell and Pastorius work quite well together. The other musicians on the album are the members of Weather Report, with the exception of Joe Zawinul, who is replaced by Herbie Hancock. Their performance is adequate, even nice at times, but one will notice right off that there is no flashy rifling on this album, even though six noted jazz whiz kid appear.
Mitchell's guitar style on this album is unique, although it appears on only the two songs in which she wrote both the music and the lyrics. "God Must Be A Boogie Man" and "The Wolf That Lives in Lindsey." In "God," she embellishes her voice with some tasty and unusual guitar strumming, slapping, and even (yes) pounding. The lyrics speak of three facets of Charles Mingus' personality as Mitchell perceived it.
In "Wolf" she uses some odd tuning and bending of her strings to describe the subject of the song, an actual psychotic killer on the loose in the streets of Hollywood. Toward the end of the song, she performs a strange duel between her guitar and some recorded wolf howls and actually pulls it off without sounding corny. Ironically, these two songs, which Mingus had nothing to do with, turned out to be the best cuts on the album.
There are some things that this album could certainly do without, and one of them is the series of "raps" or recorded conversations between songs. The problem with these raps is that they tend to be a little heavy-handed. I mean, you put on the record, and the first thing you hear is a group of people singing "Happy Birthday" to a fifty-four-year old Mingus. Then, after only one song, you're suddenly listening to an unidentified Swede and Mingus rapping about his inevitable funeral. So here we've gone from his birth to his death only six minutes into the album. These raps, in conjunction with the overall tone of the album, tend to make it, in a sense, just one long dirge.
Some of the better additions to the lp are Mitchell's four paintings included in the liners and on the jacket itself. If you buy the tape rather than the record, you're missing out, for two of these paintings, "I's A Muggin" and "Charlie Down in Mexico," are suitable for framing.
This album, regardless of the "raps" and the muddy tone, is definitely worth buying for any Mingus or Mitchell freak, or anyone who wants to hear an interesting interpretation of jazz. On the whole, if Joni Mitchell is moving in a jazz direction, then she's taken quite a step here, and I think that by her next album, she will be able to write the music for some good jazz tunes - but they will be Joni jazz tunes - don't doubt that - jazz as Joni would have it - or rather, jazz as she understands it at this point in her career. And if "God Must Be A Boogie man" is any indication of what's to come, then we definitely have something to look forward to.
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