Although the lyrics on Joni Mitchell's latest album, Mingus (Asylum Records), are typical of the singer-songwriter, her music has turned to jazz and mystified many of the fans of songs like "Big Yellow Taxi." She has been gradually turning to jazz since her Hejira album three years ago when jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius of the groups Weather Report joined her. Jaco continued to bring his distinctive bass sound to Don Juan's Reckless Daughter a year and a half ago, along with three other musicians from Weather Report: Manolo Badrena, Alejandro Acuna, and Wayne Shorter on soprano sax - as well as singer Chaka Khan. With the release of Mingus, the break is clear: four of the six tunes on the album were written specifically for her by the late jazz bassist Charles Mingus, just months before his death last January.
One of the distinct differences between this new music is that Joni is depending more and more on her voice as an instrument, so much so that in concert this summer she left her guitar behind for the newer numbers in her repertoire. The crowds at Tanglewood and Providence were given their share of past hits, but only when Joni started into songs like "The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines," was her performance fresh and alive. If you have heard some of the new album and are not quite sure how to approach it, begin with that song, on the second side. It has an up beat to it, reminiscent of "Carey" and "Free Man in Paris." Much of the rest of the album is about Charles' life as a black jazz musician, and takes some listening. One of the funniest songs on the album, "God Must Be a Boogie Man," is taken directly from the first three pages of Charles' autobiography, Beneath The Underdog, when he describes a session with his psychiatrist, who was trying to make Charles discuss his sex life. Charles turned to him and asked, "Do you believe in God?" "Of course," replied the psychiatrist. "Even if he's a boogie man?" asked Charles.
The only difficult part of the album is the two lengthy sections of "rap" on the first side, which detract from the music itself, but which Joni included because "they add a pertinent resonance. They preserve fragments of a large and colorful soul."
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