Joni Mitchell is, in one word, a survivor. In a career that spans more than 10 years, she has been one of the few women to endure the male dominated world of rock and roll. Most importantly, she has achieved this on her own artistic terms - no mean feat in an industry controlled by big bucks and big business.
"Mingus," her latest effort is another logical step in a progression that has taken her through the L.A folk rock she helped to define and extend to an eventual growth beyond that scene via jazz music.
"Mingus" is a collaborative effort. Four of the six songs were co-written with jazz great Charles Mingus. Mitchell wrote the lyrics, Mingus the music.
"Mingus" is also commemorative. When Mingus approached Mitchell last year with the idea of working together, it was widely know that he was terminally ill. Mitchell worked against time, wanting to finish the project before his death. Happily, Mingus heard every completed track except one before he died of cancer in Mexico on Jan. 5, 1979.
What results is on the one hand, a celebration of a man and his music. But "Mingus" also represents the fruits of Mitchell's labor, an exploration in the genres of jazz and black classical music in which Mingus served as mentor.
Although it's been three or four years and about as many albums since Mitchell first began working with jazz, "Mingus" is where she finally begins to show some real authority. Increased confidence has led her to sing with a new force; intonation and phrasing have taken on a new style and color. Likewise, her guitar work is bolder.
Her own jazz stylings are more perceptible than ever before.
"The Wolf that Lives in Lindsay" ia s prime example with the guitar slithering along dark and menacing beneath the evil Mitchell's poetry is expressing. Similarly, on the first cut, "God Must Be a Boogie Man" - Mitchell's affectionate ode to Mingus ("Which will it be? Mingus, one, two or three? Which one do you think he'll want the world to see?") -voice and guitar pull and play against each other to create seductive tension that pushes the song along a halting and tenuous path.
Mitchell's poetry still examines herself and the world with intense scrutiny. "Sweet Sucker dance" contains Mitchell's familiar preoccupation with love. Her poetry at times has been painfully confessional; here again she reveals and deals with her insecurities about relationships. she asks, about love - Why do we go out and get it? Just to turn around and doubt it? - but finally she succumbs, "aw - it's only a dance."
Lyrically, though, "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" may be her tour de force. In it, she takes a look at the past and present of black jazz, using the streets of New York City as a point of departure.
"Under neon, every feeling goes on! For you and me, the sidewalk is a history book and a circus! we came up from the subway on the music midnight makes to Charlie's bass and Lester's saxophone in taxi horn and brakes"
All in all, Mitchell's close collaboration with Mingus has had a positive impact on her style. "Mingus" is another milestone in her career.