The expressions of female sensibility in the poetry/music/visual art of Joni Mitchell's albums over the past decade have appealed to me as much as the works of admitted feminist artists. With unflinching accuracy, Mitchell has articulated the dilemma of a new breed of common woman: career-oriented, better-educated, in control of her own direction, but living in a society that permits women only two roles - self-denial in favor of a lifelong mate or loveless solitude.
In Mitchell's earlier albums, the "confessional" ones, she gave us painful glimpses of her attempts and inability to shackle her free will in order to keep a man. But rather than endure a lonely and guilty life sentence, Joni Mitchell set her own spirit free. Her albums since 1972 show us a woman who scrutinizes her emotional and conceptual boundaries and creates a visual/musical map of that multi-dimensional terrain. Leaving society's roles for others to play, Mitchell has refined and sustained herself.
Every one of Mitchell's recent albums exhibits the woman's knack for mixing media: perfectly matching lyrical poetry with different kinds of modern music, using visual and tonal colors to evoke various moods from playful to doubtful. Like jazz - which has increasingly influenced her music in the past few years - Mitchell's works appeal to an intelligent minority of inquisitive souls who remain unaffected by categorical dichotomies.
One such inquisitive soul was Charles Mingus, the generally acknowledged genius of jazz composition, arrangement and bass playing. When someone played some of Mitchell's albums for him, Mingus decided he'd like to collaborate with her. His original project was to be a textural collage illuminating T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets with several kinds of music and Mitchell's singing her own translation of the poet's lyrics. Though she found the idea fascinating, Joni felt she couldn't handle such an ambitious project, and respectfully declined.
Some time later, Mingus contacted her again with six songs he'd written for which he wanted her to compose the words. "Two of them I never could really get into," Mitchell says. "They were too idiomatic for me." The others appear on Joni's latest and most daring album yet - Mingus, released in memory of the jazz great who died before the work was completed.
"Mingus" is the documentation of a revolution in Mitchell's work. The full and equal artistic collaboration with a man of stature in a different musical domain has affected her output more deeply than all the lovers of her past efforts. She is no longer entirely in control. In "A Chair in the Sky," for example, she literally puts herself in Mingus' place as she shapes the words to fit his tune.
But Mitchell also maintains a respectful distance between them. Brief excerpts from taped interviews let Mingus speak for himself in all his cranky, funky, opinionated, obnoxious, warmi and responsive glory. In her own composition, "God Must Be a Boogie Man," Joni observes and reports her insights more in the manner of her former self, but with abrupt (Mingusian) time changes. Mitchell felt a correspondence between Charles' difficult musical concepts and the cacophony of the wolf calls in a song she had been writing before she met him. On the album, "The Wolf That Lives in Lindsey" appears to represent the parts of the man she could never meet or understand.
Mitchell's recognition of the similarity between artistic collaboration and romantic involvement appears, even more vividly on Side 2. Charles and Joni sing a duet to introduce "Sweet Sucker Dance," in which Mitchell's recurrent insecurity threatens to spoil another relationship. By this time, though, Joni has learned not to take her own blues so seriously. The idea that "it's only a dance" segues into "The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines," a lighthearted Mingus composition with infectious, subtly assonant lyrics that reveal just a shade of the insightful humor common to Afro-Americans. Describing a man playing a slot machine, Joni sings: "He got 3 oranges, 3 lemons, 3 cherries, 3 plums/I'm losing my taste for fruit/watching the dry cleaner do it/like Midas in a polyester suit."
The controversial but indisputably classic collaboration on this album is the well-known "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat." Charles originally wrote the music in tribute to Lester Young. Mitchell's lyrics - which partially follow the changes and partially improvise - move from parallels between the lives and music of Prez and Mingus in the past, to her own present interracial involvement, to a street scene where black children are dancing. The root cause of racism appears with shocking clarity, but Mitchell foretells a brighter future.
Vocally, as well as compositionally, Mingus foretells a brighter future for Joni Mitchell. She has finally entered the ranks of those jazz singers who play their vocal instrument cooperatively with others in the band. Mitchell takes chances with her voice now, and sometimes she gets a bit lost and has to depend on Herbie Hancock or Wayne Shorter or Jaco Pastorius to bail her out. Mitchell has sacrificed total control to gain the more challenging spontaneity of a mature artist.
Joni Mitchell has demanded cooperation and respect in exchange for her self-sacrifice ever since she first started singing her mind. Charles Mingus gave Ms. Mitchell what she wanted. Joni's been through a lot of love affairs, but Mingus is her first marriage.
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