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Joni Mitchell Makes Mingus Sing Print-ready version

by Leonard Feather
Down Beat
September 6, 1979

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The career of vocalist and songwriter Joni Mitchell has, within the last year, developed to emphasize her associations with jazz music which have been evident at least since Tom Scott's L.A.Express joined her on on Court and Spark. Mingus, her acclaimed collaboration with the late bassist/composer, and her Playboy Jazz Festival performance with Herbie Hancock, Don Alias, Gene Perla, and Randy Brecker are indicative of her latest direction. In conversation, Joni states her longtime involvement with jazz - the sound of Annie Ross is clearly discernible in some of Joni's phrasing, and sure enough—Lambert, Hendricks & Ross was an early favorite.

Born in McLeod, Alberta, Canada, Joni Mitchell enrolled at an art school in Alberta but soon drifted into folk singing. She took an increasing interest in songwriting, graduated from ukelele to acoustic guitar, and after working at coffee houses in Toronto, moved to Detroit in 1966.

Her career moved into top gear after she signed with Reprise Records in 1967. During the years that followed, her own personal success as a singer was at times partially subjugated to the impact of others' versions of her songs (Both Sides Now provided a hit for Joni and a gold record for Judy Collins). Since 1972 Mitchell has been with Asylum Records.

A natural musician rather than a schooled one, over the years her close association with sophisticated musicians has led to an ever more sensitive awareness of the fundamentals of jazz.

Last year, it became known that she was embarking on an album in collaboration with the ailing Mingus, the sidemen including Wayne Shorter, Jaco Pastorius, Peter Erskine and Herbie Hancock.

By late April, the project had been finally mixed and the album was previewed at a private party. The interview below took place a few days later, when Mitchell still had not decided on a final title, which she discusses here.

The art work consists of three paintings by Mitchell of Mingus. It was to this that I made reference in my opening comment.

Feather: I like what you put outside the album almost as much as what you put in . . . it's a beautiful cover.

Mitchell: Thank you. I like the cover myself. I've always done much more commercial covers - by that, I mean to distinguish it from my very personal, private painting. It's the first time I decided to put that out because it seemed to suit the music. The music is very painterly as well, I think, a lot of white canvas, and very brash, strokey interaction, especially on the things that were done with Wayne and Jaco, and Peter and Herbie.

Had you ever considered making that your career?

All my life I've painted. All through school it was my intention to go on to study art. It was a very academic culture that I came out of. Our parents had come up through the Depression, and insisted that we all have a very good education. I wasn't academically oriented and I was growing up just at the time before arts were included as a pan of education. Four years later there were fully developed art departments and music departments in the high schools that I attended. But at that time I was kind of a freak.

Music education was very limited then, too.

Well, now, even though they've included that in the program, both the art and the music education are still limited. But they have access to a lot of fantastic equipment, and at least it is included in the curriculum. At that point in my education, when they discovered on an aptitude test that I had musical abilities, they wanted me to join a glee club, which was pretty corny music; it wasn't too challenging. So I didn't join.

Well, you couldn't learn the kind of music you later became involved with.

No, it was all exposure to people who moved me, that's how it came. It came really from the street, going into a club and hearing somebody hanging out with somebody. Not so much playing with people like jazz musicians, but just observing.

What was the first exposure you had?

When I was in high school - like I say, I wasn't too swift academically, but I did a lot of extracurricular drawing. I did backdrops for school plays, drawings of mathematicians for my math teacher and biology charts of life for my biology teacher. That was a way of appeasing them for being so disinterested in the academic aspect. One year I did a Christmas card for a fellow who was a school leader, and he gave me a present of some Miles Davis albums and about that time my only musical interest, actively, was in rock 'n' roll - Chuck Berry, and this was at the level of dance. I loved to dance. I think my time developed from that love. Going to two, three or as many dances as were available to go to a week.

Anyway, by my doing this card, he introduced me to some jazz. Then I heard, at a party, Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, The Hottest New Sound In Jazz, which at that time was out of issue up in that part of the country, in Canada. So I literally saved up and bought it at a bootleg price, and in a way I've always considered that album to be my Beatles because I learned every song off it. Cloudburst I couldn't sing, because of some of the very fast scatting on it; but I still to this day know every song on that album. I don't think there's another album that I know every song on, including my own!

I loved that album, the spirit of it. And like I say it came at a time when rock 'n' roll was winding down just before the Beatles came along and revitalized it. And during that ebb that's when folk music came into its full power.

What were the Miles Davis albums?

Sketches of Spain . . . I must admit that it was much later that Miles really grabbed my attention… and Nefertiti and In A Silent Way became my all-time favorite records in just any field of music. They were my private music; that was what I loved to put on and listen to - for many years now. Somehow or other I kept that quite separate from my own music. I never thought of making that kind of music. I only thought of it as something sacred and unattainable. So this year was very exciting to play with the players that I did.

You did let your hair down one time when you did Twisted.

Right - and Centerpiece, I also did that. One by one I've been unearthing the songs from that Lambert, Hendricks & Ross album.

But there's no seeming relationship between the two worlds…

Which two worlds are you referring to?

The world of music you recorded and the jazz world.

All the time that I've been a musician, I've always been a bit of an oddball. When I was considered a folk musician, people would always tell me that I was playing the wrong chords, traditionally speaking. When I fell into a circle of rock 'n' roll musicians and began to look for a band, they told me I'd better get jazz musicians to play with me, because my rhythmic sense and my harmonic sense were more expansive. The voicings were broader; the songs were deceptively simple. And when a drummer wouldn't notice where the feel changed, or where the accent on the beat would change, and they would just march through it in the rock 'n' roll tradition, I would be very disappointed and say, "Didn't you notice there was a pressure point here," or "Here we change," and they just would tell me, 'Joni, you better start playing with jazz musicians."

Then, when I began to play with studio jazz musicians, whose hearts were in jazz but who could play anything, they began to tell me that I wasn't playing the root of the chord. So all the way along, no matter who I played with, I seemed to be a bit of an oddball. I feel more natural in the company that I'm keeping now, because we talk more metaphorically about music. There's less talk and more play.

You've been associating with jazz studio musicians for how long?

Four years. I made Court Spark five albums ago.

Did that come about by design or by accident?

The songs were written and I was still looking for a band intact, rather than having to piece a band together myself. Prior to that album, I had done a few things with Tom Scott, mostly doubling of existing guitar lines. I wanted it to be a repetition or gilding of existing notes within my structure. So through him, I was introduced to that band. I went down to hear them at the Baked Potato in Studio City and that's how all that came about.

They all found it extremely difficult at first, hearing the music just played and sung by one person; it sounded very frail and delicate, and there were some very eggshelly early sessions where they were afraid they would squash it, whereas I had all the confidence in the world that if they played strongly, I would play more strongly.

So from that point on you worked with the L.A. Express?

We worked together for a couple of years, in the studio and on the road.

Did that expand your knowledge, being around them so much?

Not really, not in an academic sense. It gave me the opportunity to play with a band and to discover what that was like. But I still was illiterate in that I not only couldn't read, but I didn't know - and don't to this day - what key I'm playing in, or the names of my chords. I don't know the numbers, letters, or the staff. I approach it very paintingly, metaphorically: so I rely on someone that I'm playing with, or the players themselves, to sketch out the chart of the changes. I would prefer that we all just jumped on it and really listened.

Miles always gave very little direction, as I understand. It was just "Play it. If you don't know the chord there, don't play there," and that system served him well. It was a natural editing system. It created a lot of space and a lot of tension, because everybody had to be incredibly alert and trust their ears. And I think that's maybe why I loved that music as much as I did, because it seemed very alert and very sensual and very unwritten.

And you, in turn, trusted your own ears.

I do trust my own ears. Even for things that seem too outside. For instance, sometimes I'm told that So-and-So in the band, if I hadn't already noticed, was playing outside the chord. I see that there's a harmonic dissonance created; but I also think that the line that he's created, the arc of it, bears some relationship to something else that's being played, therefore it's valid. So in my ignorance there's definitely a kind of bliss. I don't have to be concerned with some knowledge that irritates other people.

"Outside" is only a comparative term, anyway.

Outside the harmony... but still, as a painter, if the actual contour of the phrase is, like I say, related to an existing contour that someone is playing, then it has validity. Like, if you look at a painting, there seem to be some brush strokes that seem to be veering off, or the color may be dashing, but something in the shape or form of it relates to something that exists; therefore it's beautiful.

I see music very graphically in my head - in my own graph, not in the existing systemized graph - and I, in a way, analyze it or interpret it, or evaluate it in terms of a visual abstraction inside my mind's eye.

Where did you first hear about Mingus?

I remember some years ago, John Guerin played Pork Pie Hat for me, which is one of the songs that I've done on this new album; and it was that same version. But it was premature; he played it for me at a time when it kind of went in one ear and out the other. I probably said "hmm-hmm," and it wasn't until I began to learn the piece that I really saw the beauty of it.

Mingus, of course, was a legend. Folk and jazz in the cellars of New York were overlapping, so I'd heard of Mingus by name for some time. As a matter of fact, I'd heard that name as far back as when I was listening to Lambert, Hendricks & Ross in Canada. I was in high school then, but my friends in the university spoke of these legendary people. That was in the early '60s.

When did you actually get to meet him?

I got word through a friend of a friend that Charles had something in mind for me to do, and this came down the grapevine to me. Apparently he had tried through normal channels to get hold of me; but there's a very strong filtering system here and for one reason or another it never reached me. So it came in this circular way, and I called him up to see what it was about, and at that time he had an idea to make a piece of music based on T.S. Eliot's Quartet and he wanted to do it with - this is how he described it - a full orchestra playing one kind of music, and overlaid on that would be bass and guitar playing another kind of music; over that there was to be a reader reading excerpts from Quartet in a very formal literary voice; and interspersed with that he wanted me to distill T.S. Eliot down into street language, and sing it mixed in with the reader.

It was an interesting idea; I like textures. I think of music in a textural collage wag myself, so it fascinated me. I bought the book that contained the Quartet and read it; and I felt it was like turning a symphony into a tune. I could see the essence of what he was saying, but his expansion was like expanding a theme in the classical symphonic sense, and I just felt I couldn't do it. So I called Charles back and told him I couldn't do it, it seemed kind of like a sacrilege.

So some time went by and I got another call from him saying that he'd written six songs for me and he wanted me to sing them and write the words for them. That was April of last year, and I went out to visit him and I liked him immediately, and he was devilishly challenging.

He played me one piece of music - an older piece, I don't know the title of it— because we figured it was going to take eight songs to make an album: the six new ones and two old ones. So we began searching through this material, and he said, "This one has five different melodies," and I said, "And you want me to write five different sets of lyrics at once," and he said "Yes."

He put it on and it was the fastest, boogieingest thing I'd ever heard, and it was impossible. So this was like a joke on me. He was testing and teasing me; but it was in good fun. I enjoyed the time I spent with him very much.

How sick was he then?

He was in a wheelchair. I never knew him when he was well, and I never beard him play; he was paralyzed then.

How much contact did you have, actually working together?

There were several visits to the house; the better part of an afternoon listening to old music; discussing the themes and his lyrical intent on the new melodies. Then he and Sue [Mingus] went to Mexico to a faith healer down there, and during the time they were in Mexico I went and spent ten days with them. By that time his speech had severely deteriorated. Every night he would say to me, "I want to talk to you about the music," and every day it would be too difficult. It was hard for him to speak.

So some of what he had to tell me remained a mystery. But Sue gave me a lot of tapes of interviews with him and they were thrilling to me, because so much of what he felt and described was so kindred to my own feelings; he articulated lessons that were laid on him by people like Fats Navarro and others. So he was definitely a teacher of mine.

What in your work had attracted him to you and caused him to get in touch with you?

Somebody played him some of my records. Now, this is a story that came to me - there's a piece of music of mine called Paprika Plains which was done in sections. The middle of it is about seven minutes of improvisational playing, which I had somebody else orchestrate for me. And then stuck on to each end of it is a song that I wrote later around it. It was improvised off of a theme; then I abandoned the theme and just left the improvisational part which I cut together. It's a modern technological way of composing.

It was recorded in January, and the piano was tuned many, many times, so by August I when I played the verses, which were born much later, the piano had slightly changed. So when it was orchestrated, it's in tune for a while, but then it hits that splice where it goes from the January piano to the August piano. With a fine ear you notice. So somebody was playing this piece for Charles, and Charles is a stickler for true pitch and time, and he kept saying, "It's out of tune, it's out of tune." But when the piece was over he said that I had a lot of balls!

So something about it - whatever it was he didn't like, he also saw some strength and certainly an adventuresome spirit, because I'd been pushing the limits of what constitutes a song for years; I keep trying to expand it— with an instrumental in the middle or with no known or prescribed length, but just as long as my own interest will hold out. And I presume that if it will hold my interest that long that it will at least hold the interest of a minority.

So, as near as I can tell, that was part of it, that he felt that I had a sense of adventure.

Didn't you find it necessary in your later stages to finish off some of the music yourself?

See, I can only work from inspiration. I have a certain amount of craft, granted, but I cannot work only from craft. A piece that is merely craft doesn't mean anything to me. It has to be inspired. Of the six melodies he gave me, two of them I never really could get into; they were too idiomatic in a way for me. They were modern enough for my own sense of what is modern - they were reminding me of something back there, and I couldn’t find any new way I could transcend them. I had to just lock into them and do them and I just couldn't get inspired by two of them.

One of them was extremely beautiful (this is a third one), but I couldn't get into it because the theme was very difficult. Charles had referred me to a passage in his book, a long discourse between him and Fats Navarro about God. And it was his own metaphorical description of God and relationship to God. I couldn't just lift that literally and make it adhere to his melody. That threw me into my own confrontation with my own metaphors about God, and it boggled my mind; it just fried my brain. I somehow or other could not really figure that puzzle out. So those three never got finished.

The four that I did complete were all inspired: either I stumbled across pieces of the poetry in the street, or they came to me in mysterious ways - they were meant to be. But the other three melodies somebody else should write words to, because they're beautiful.

That left me with a song I had been writing before I met Charles, The Wolf That Lives In Lindsey - that strange piece of music, which I included because I felt that the wolves constituted part of Charles' musical concept about cacophony. There was some natural, beautiful cacophony; those wolves are singing in a chorus, hitting every note on the keyboard, but it's beyond dissonance, it transcends dissonance. So I thought it was kindred to Charles' way of thinking in that way.

The other song, God Must Be A Boogie Man, is based on the first four pages of his book, and I tried to take those first four pages and use the meter and everything to the three of these melodies of his, but the words wouldn't adhere. So then I let them have their own syncopation and wrote my own melody to it. So that's very much his own self-description.

Then there's the documentary footage in the album, which I think is extraordinary important due to the fact that Charles knew long before he became ill how he wanted his funeral to be carried out, what he did want and didn't want; I had to include that. And I love the spirit of the birthday song - which establishes the year he was born in, that's why I opened it that way.

Was that a tape that just happened to be in his loft?

Sue gave me that. She thought those things were important. And I also liked Sue's presence on the tape, because she is a wonderful woman - she was wonderful to Charles; she made that last time... she was very, very giving and great with him.

You were saying at the party the other day that there were still some pleasures he was able to find in life, even at that late stage.

Yes, he loved to eat, even though supposedly he was on a diet for his health; he liked to ride in a car - as a matter of fact, that was the only time he could sleep. Sue and a nurse and his son would load him up into the van and they would go off driving around and he would sleep peaceably in there; but he was an insomniac back at the house. So the ride in the car, and the outings to the restaurant, were highlights, something he really looked forward to.

When was the last time you actually saw him or spoke to him?

That would be in October. Sue told me something beautiful today. Now Charles died at the age of 56 in Mexico; the following day he was cremated. That day 56 whales beached themselves on a coast of Mexico, and not knowing what to do with them, the people there burned them. So 56 whales were cremated the same day as Charles.

There was a lot of mojo in his life - there's a lot of mojo in my life, too. He was very wrapped up with natural phenomena. And that's why I think we all had a certain amount of faith in the possibility that he could actually beat it. I always addressed myself to that possibility. If I hadn't, I know the songs would have been much more directed at Charles, like The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines would have probably had a different lyric content, or Sweet Sucker Dance. Because when it came down to the finished album, I thought, this is not a complete portrait of such a complex person; I wished then that every song had been dedicated to a certain aspect of his personality. Some addressed themselves directly; and indirectly they all had something that was kindred with his way.

You mentioned that on some of the numbers, there were several different versions that had to be left out of the final album, that included a lot of interesting people such as Phil Woods, Gerry Mulligan, etc. How did that come about, and is there any possibility that those outtakes might eventually be used in some other context?

They're in the can. If you laid them all out and said, okay, here's four versions of the same song, let's choose which one we like the best, you would find some people liked one version better than another and that no one would really agree. So, it came down to my decision and to my direction.

Charles and I differed musically; we shared things but differed in some ways. He had an aversion to electrical instruments, and was very much a purist. And while I'm basically an acoustic player so I understand that, I never was prejudiced against electric instruments; I just don't have any mechanical aptitude. There are too many knobs for me, so I revert back to the simpler form. I know I'm sidestepping your question.

What I'm curious about is, did you make several versions just because you weren't satisfied with each one in turn, or you just wanted to experiment with different ways of approaching the same material?

Both of those things are true. The first sessions Charles was present at they were with Jeremy Lubbock, Don Alias, Gerry Mulligan; Stanley Clarke played at one of them. The groove was more there, it was closer to what Charlie wanted, they swung more, and Charlie was a stickler for them to swing. So in some ways they were stronger in that area. Alias is a great drummer; he can really play anything great. So they had a beautiful character to them. In some ways you could even say that I sang better, because the time was so solid.

But something happened, something was missing, to me, they could have been cut 20 years ago; they didn't contain something that we know now. And it was so abstract, and since I don't have the language, and owing to a sense of feminine inferiority that comes on me every once in a while when I'm in a position of leading men - every once in a while I get that, coupled with inferiority and illiteracy, you can understand that there can appear a complex from time to time. Especially when I'm looking for something that I can't articulate. There's an abstraction there. So I just kept cutting them over and over with different personnel and when we finally did these things that night, I realized what it was I was looking for - an integral relationship with the band where the band wasn't coupling up into a bass player and a drummer playing off each other, trading licks. That can happen in the best of bands, you know, where cliques develop internally within the band and people are playing for each other's pleasure, and the vocalist, while they are a leader of sorts, is kind of apart from what's going on behind them.

I didn't want this to happen, and on these dates I have here, they yanked the downbeat out from underneath me, so that suddenly the thing would be floating and I would be out there all alone - like hang gliding!

Especially Shorter - from playing with Miles, I guess - plays so beautifully, not off of a high linear line, not just matching tones, but he plays so brilliantly off of lyrics, because he has such a pictorial mind that he is talking. He's such a metaphorical player. I love the way he related to me. He especially made me feel like an integral band member. So we all seemed to be one organism on this music.

I think that's quite unique, even among the great jazz vocalists. They tend to be fronting a track; whereas in this music, we're all mimicking each other, we're shading the tail end of a phrase the way a tone... the tone has breath, people play breathy, even the percussion instruments seem to become breathy. If you look at it you'll see how entwined we are, and that, I thought, was a beautiful accomplishment and something special.

I got some of that feeling on my first listen; but I want to listen again. I don't know how many people listening for the first time will get the full impact.

I don't think so; I don't think you can. I've listened to it so many times, I've gone through so many changes about it, it's like quicksilver. It's very dependent on the mood you're in. It'll change on you like a chameleon. It requires many listenings, like good poetry; I think all good art has that quality. It just doesn't stand still, there's nothing static about it.

What do you expect from the album in terms of popular public reaction? Do you think it's commercial - not that that's the objective; but how commercial do you expect it to be?

I dare not have any expectations. If I have them, I probably would be disappointed, because I'm very pleased with it. So if I have any expectations, or hope, it would be that people would find it accessible. I think it is, but I know how intimidating great musicianship is to a lot of people; it can awe people and make them feel excluded rather than included; I hope that doesn't happen. I'm talking about within the context of the pop field, not within the context of the jazz idiom at all. I would be surprised if it wasn't well accepted in the jazz world, because it contains all the best elements of that music. It's very spontaneous, creative and fresh.

In the pop circles, I have no idea what will happen.

I think a lot of it will be helped by just the fact that it's a Joni Mitchell album. Some of the millions of people who have bought your other albums will be a little more open-eared about it than they might normally be, just because it's you.

Here's the thing that I intuitively felt. The earlier sessions, while they were more straight ahead in the idiom, people in the pop field were more barricaded to that than they are to this, in that it was so idiomatic, it was blanket jazz to them. Whereas this is something else; you can't really say it's jazz or pop…

It doesn't need to be classified...

It's not an obviously classified sound, and that will give it a greater chance to be explored. I think by the very nature of the fact that we're indicating everything rather than stating it completely, you'd think that would make it less accessible, but I think in a way it makes it more accessible.

Do you have a title for the album yet?

I have so many titles. Today it's called A Chair In The Sky. Although Sue objected to that title at one point and she had good reason for it, in that she didn't want Charles to be remembered as an invalid. But somehow that title seems to suit it the best. It has a lot of meanings for me - I first met Charles up in a Manhattan skyscraper in this chair, and he was a very commanding figure, because he just swallowed the chair up; it was like he was enthroned, very regal. I never looked at him so much like an invalid; it seemed like a regal position.

Charles saw a great importance in titling well, especially for non-lyrical music. He felt that that was where you got a chance to make your statement. As a matter of fact, on the projects, that's what he always asked me first: "What's the title of the song?" I always loved the Hissing Of Summer Lawns title, but it was too oblique for most people. Take an afternoon like today when everybody has their sprinklers running—that’s what it was about.

Who is in the band that you're going out with now?

Jaco Pastorius, Don Alias, Alex Acuna. It'll be two drums, bass, and two guitars - although we haven't set the guitarists yet.

Do you expect on the tour to do most or some of the material out of this album?

Some of it. God Must Be A Boogie Man I know we'll do; Chair In The Sky; Pork Pie Hat... but they'll be different, of course.

Did Charles Mingus know any thing about the choice of Jaco before you made it?

We talked about personnel and the people he suggested, I didn't know any of them. I tried some session with people he suggested, but still, all the way along, in the back of my mind I had my favorites, and those are the people I ended up working with.

Did you tell him about Jaco after you used him?

No, we talked about him at an earlier stage - you have to understand he was very ill then, so I couldn't tell from his responses whether he knew Jaco's work or whether he liked it. I couldn't get any real feedback. All I knew was that he was very prejudiced against electrical instruments, but when he articulated his prejudices on a tape that I heard, Jaco transcends them all.

He felt that with an electrical instrument you couldn't get dynamics; that the dynamics were all done by pushing buttons and so on. But Jaco completely defies all that; he gets more dynamics than any bass player ... he's phenomenal, he's an orchestra. He's a horn section, he's a string section, he's a french horn soloist - as a matter of fact when you have a job for the bass player, you almost have to hire a bass player!

Having gotten your feet wet in this area, do you have any comparable projects in mind?

I'm not sure; I'd like to experiment more with rhythm eventually, if not on the next album. I might do a completely acoustic album, almost like a folk album, but harmonically it would be so different from folk music.

All the great people have been against pigeonholing - Duke Ellington always was.

It's so limiting. It casts you into a point of reference which is inaccurate. For the very sake of being accurate - which supposedly pigeonholing does - it in fact does the opposite. The great classical composers created songs.

Which of the things you've done in the past, that have not enjoyed enormous commercial success, would you like to have seen enjoying it?

Well, Court & Spark was commercially successful: it was a radical turning point from me being almost a solo artist to suddenly being there with the band, and it was very well received. Now, the next project was The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, and it was again a departure, it was much jazzier, and it also marked a turning point for me as a lyricist, in that I began to write a more narrative and less personal song.

Critically speaking, that record received a tremendous amount of unnecessary hostility. It was voted the worst album of the year by Rolling Stone, when in fact it was quite a progressive work. I felt it was unjustly attacked; it was an album that took a long time to digest. People had to digest me coming from a different position as a storyteller.

Pigeonholes all seem funny to me. I feel like one of those lifer-educational types that just keeps going for letters after their name— I want the full hyphen: folk-rock-country-jazz-classical . . . so finally when you get all the hyphens in, maybe they'll drop them all, and get down to just some American music.

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Added to Library on January 9, 2000. (24031)


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