"Mingus" Joni Mitchell. Asylum S-505
Mitchell is one of pop music's most prized figures, and a songwriter of uncommon poetic grace. In the 1960s and '70s only Bob Dylan, Randy Newman and John Prine have come up with five albums as lyrically compelling as Mitchell's output from "Ladies of the Canyon" through "The Hissing of Summer Lawns."
The best songs in those folk-flavoured collections chronicled romance with a rare, fascinating blend of a reporter's objectivity and diary-like revelation. The elegantly signed tunes dealt with relationships without being giddy and with disappointments without showing self-pity.
Still, I approached this collaboration with the late Charles Mingus, the greatly respected jazz musician scepticism. Mitchell's work since "Hissing" in 1975 has consisted chiefly of unconvincing flirtations with jazz. Not only was the music often stiff, but the lyrics were weary, self-centred confessionals.
When this album opened with a birthday salute to Mingus, my fears were heightened. But the album is a surprise - warm, confident, engaging.
It is similar in spirit - though not in style - to John Lennon's first solo album and Neil Young's "Tonight's the Night," two of the most arresting LPs of the '70s. Like them, "Mingus" is an uncompromising artistic statement, uncluttered by the usual commercial considerations of pop.
The tone is jazzy and moody - not nearly as brightly coloured and accessible as most of Mitchell's long-time fans might prefer. But the aura of self-indulgence that surrounded the ambitious but flawed "Hejira" and the especially drab "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter" has been swept away.
Her lyrics are applied to new and old Mingus compositions, as well as to two of her own. They toast jazz, Mingus and - ultimately the joys and tensions of the artist, both as a creator and as a person. The tunes range from the playfulness of "God Must be a Boogie Man" to the romantic search of "Sweet Sucker Dance" to the social commentary of "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat."
Mitchell still hasn't regained the full lyrical prowess of her peak period, but there's heart and imagination in this album. Above all, it provides a chance to hear a gifted artist doing exactly what she wants to do musically. Whatever the specific mood of the song, there's a sense of celebration.
I'm not sure that Mitchell's music is best served by the jazz style of "Mingus," but there's a sparkle of artistic rebirth. The scepticism is gone. This confident, comfortable LP makes me look with eagerness once more to the next Joni Mitchell album.