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Mitchell And Mingus - an Odd Couple That Worked Print-ready version

by Bob Protzman
Charlotte Observer
September 2, 1979

Joni Mitchell said that at first, even she felt her collaboration with the late jazz composer Charles Mingus was an "odd combination".

But the collaboration produced a new album and led to her first concert tour in three years.

Between munches of a grilled cheese sandwich and cole slaw at the Cleveland Airport, Ms Mitchell talked recently about the Mingus-Mitchell collaboration and the album "Mingus" that resulted on Asylum.

Mingus, a composer of strongly gospel and blues-based music such as "Better Git in Your Soul" and one of jazz's most influential figures, died at 56 last January from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, more commonly known and Lou Gherig's disease.

He contacted Canadian-born Ms Mitchell, 35, a year before his death.

Why did Mingus single out Ms Mitchell, who is known primarily as a folk and rock artist, although she has, in her own words, "flirted" with jazz in recent years?

"He hadn't given up hope of living at that point," Ms. Mitchell said, "so it was not necessarily that I was contacted to write his epitah. We all shared his optimism that he would beat it, even though it was incurable.

"Initially, I felt his invitation was an honor and a challenge. I thought it was an odd combination, yet I was looking for a peculiar project. This (Mingus' inquiry) came to me as a perfect gift, an opportunity to study jazz with a master in a way that suited my learning process - by muddling through it."

At first, Mingus wanted her to work with him on a complex project involving a full orchestra, jazz voices, and the recitation of T.S Eliot. Ms Mitchell declined, saying it was beyond her musical skills and she wasn't that fond of Eliot's work.

Some time passed before he again got in touch with her. "Then he handed me six melodies and asked me to write lyrics to them to his satisfaction," she said chuckling, she added, "And this from a man who punched out band members - on the bandstand - when he was dissatisfied with them. It was a little joke between us that he wouldn't punch me."

Ms. Mitchell said that although he was paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair, he was mentally alert and subject to the same kind of emotions and moods he'd always been known for. "His spirit was not paralyzed," she said.

She said she wanted Mingus to like the album, but also wanted to break down some of his prejudices. "He was prejudiced against electric instruments; he felt the dynamics were lost with them and that it was their nature to take away the humanness of the player. Well, I felt our players were exceptions to that. And he ended up liking their music. You see, it was an exchange."

Mingus, before his death, heard five of the albums six tracks, four of which were Ms. Mitchell's lyrics to his melodies. The other two songs had words and music by Ms Mitchell. "God Must Be a Boogie Man" is the only one he didn't hear.

Ms Mitchell acknowledges she consciously avoided producing what would be called a jazz album. She chose not to use versions of the songs that had been performed by such bebop and straight ahead jazz players as alto saxophonist Phil Woods, baritonist Gerry Mulligan and bassist Eddie Gomez.

"They were all successful versions in their own way; that's why I mentioned the musicians on the album," she said. "But they played traditional bebop and I didn't want the album to be a retrospective.

"I wanted to create a record that without sacrificing any musical integrity within the jazz idiom, would be accessible to pop audiences. I wanted it to be a purely modern jazz album, but even in my singing. I didn't want to try to sound like a singer in the jazz idiom."

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Added to Library on June 17, 2002. (3023)


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