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Mitchell and Mingus: an evening in the rain Print-ready version

by John Milward
Chicago Reader
August 24, 1979

Gray fog coated the rolling hills of southern Wisconsin as we, running late, rocketed toward Friday's Joni Mitchell show at Alpine Valley. Electricity had filled the sky for over an hour, with blue fluorescent flashes that seemed particularly ominous given the lack of precipitation. Anxious about the hour, and ignoring he speed limit, we joked that the center of the storm seemed to be our destination. This seemed somehow appropriate--Joni Mitchell's songs have always provided her a shelter from the storm, and her best work has made room for us too.

In a prairie of a parking lot, we heard the crowd indulging in a welcoming ovation, and it seemed right to hear Joni open with "Big Yellow Taxi" as we walked among acres of assembly line automobiles. The song always seemed pretty trite anyway, and we, like Joni, had long stopped thinking that there is a paradise left to be paved. As we percehed atop the natural bowl that houses the outdoor theater, the view before us resembled a Taoist painting. While threatening sky hugged the earth, adoring fans cloistered Joni Mitchell. People were sprawled across the hill like so many overflowing picnic baskets, while under the winged roof that rises from the base of the hill, those with reserved seats sat inclear regiment. All eyes were glued to Joni, but above the roof, where dull explosions of light blanketed the horizon, we could see the true hand of fate at work. Joni Mitchell's confessional songs can't hold a candle to the sky. Still, there was no rain. The atmosphere seemed palsied, like an emotionally frayed lover. It's always worse when you can't cry.

As vocations go, being a confessional singer songwriter is fraught with both emotional and professional peril. Not only does the writer base his work on his most potentially embarrassing moments of self-awareness, but he also must continually sharpen his lyrical blade. Stifling self-consciousness is a constant threat--when a singer's private revelations fail to click with an audience, he is left with egg on his face. When the song succeeds, we are all left with sticky chins. The confessional art is based on private experiences, but the genre's best songs weave an intricate web that places us all in a common emotional framework.

To varying degrees, of course, all art is derived from personal exsperience, but the confessional writer pushes this tendency to the extreme and runs a constant peril of sinking into stifling myopia. The challenge to the artist, then is to make art that keeps pace with the emotional growth that comes with accumulating years.

As we walk to our seats, Joni rolls languorously into one of her finest songs of the growing pains inherent in contemporary romance, "Just Like this Train"-- "I used to count lovers like railroad cars, I counted them on my side." Years have passed since that song graced Mitchell's most sublime album, Court and Spark, and while the sense of bittersweet hopefulness remains, the thrust of tonight's version is the inexorable and necessary movement of the train itself. The metaphor has become the method. Past romantic failures, not to mention present expectations, are justified by the continuing flight (or fight). Just like this train.

While all Mitchell's albums have contained moments of revelation, only Blue and Court and Spark stand as full-fledged confessional masterpieces, with the former benefiting from its acoustic simplicity and the latter from its full-bodied pop production. Each album signaled the fruition of a stylistic pole for Mitchell--folk for the first, her subsequent growth into pop-rock for the second--and each seemingly necessitated her movement toward a more idiocentric style. Add to this the burdensome notoriety of laying your life out on vinyl--where "is she really going out with him?" translates into "is it Crosby, Stills, or Nash?"--and the need for artistic growth joins hands with the need to continually escape one's own past. Admirably, and almost surprisingly, Joni Mitchell has aged gracefully. Her lyrics have tended to become less specific vis-a-vis who and what developing more deeply into the personal transitions that any aging romantic endures. When yo've already spun around the circle game, the symmetry of the ride becomes more iimportant than today's partner and so it is not surprising that Mitchell's most successful post-Spark album was Hejira, which documented the solitary flight of the refuge of the road. Here, the struggles ofa particular relationship aren't as significant as the personal strength required to see beyond today's trauma, toward tomorrow's.

Equally significant is Mitchell's move toward a more cerebral style that incorporates elements of both folk and jazz. These experiments have wrought both successes and failures. The airiness of Mitchell's guitar and Jaco Pastorius's cerebral bass exquisitely conveyed the freedom-seeking wanderlust of Hejira while the melodic paucity of much of Don Juan's Reckless Daughter left that double set to drown in its own pretensions. The problem with the latter is that while Mitchell was struggling to give her voice the freedom of jazz, her melodies stymied her efforts. Enter Charles Mingus.

On the face of it, it's hard to imagine what prompted the late composer-bassist to initiate a collaboration with the bright-white singer-songwriter. When Mitchell had earlier written a tribute to blues singer Furry Lewis, the bluesman recalled her visit with scorn. Beale Street, he contended, was not best understood from behind the frosted glass of a limousine. The best guess for Mingus's interest is that he sensed a yearning and need for growth in the singer that reflected his own desire. Just like that train, he believed in rolling until he died.

Commercially and aesthetically, Mingus is something of a no-win situation for Mitchell. It is neither the ultimate Mingus tribute--the bassist left a catalog of music that makes such an effort redundant, and the album's spoken passages seem an awkward afterthought--now a great Joni Mitchell record. Jazz purists are likely to latch onto the image of Mitchell as a pop poseur while old Mitchell fans might voice dismay at her continued stylistic wanderings. But in some respects, it is precisely these audience-splitting qualities that make Mingus a significant record. In a pop world where risks are increasingly minimized, and past images are mercilessly milked for future profit, Mitchell damns marketing strategies for artistic growth. Mingus would be pleased.

Mitchell is not new to jazz singing--Spark included a version of Lambert Hendricks and Ross's "Twisted"--but Mingus is her purest effort in the genre. And while it would be premature to call her a great jazz singer, the album's finest moments indicate that she could well become one. "In daydreams of rebirth," she sings on "A Chair in the Sky." "I see myself in style, raking in what I'm worth." Moments of this record--the sweeping, multitracked seat ending to "The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines," the "damn these blues" ambience of "Sweet Sucker Dance." the chilling atmosphere of Mitchell's own "The Wolf that Lives in Lindsey"--find Mitchell winning a fine return on her best. "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" shows her hitting the jackpot.

"Pork Pie Hat" is one of Mingus's finest compositions, and certainly his best known, and Mitchell's finely wrought lyrics imbue her reading with the twin spires of the collaboration. Originally written as a tribute to Lester Young, it becomes in Mitchell's version an ode not only to Mingus but also to jazz musicians and hand-holders who give spirit to the "lunatic New York night." "Dangerous clowns," she calls them, lovers and jazzmen both, "balancing dreadful and wonderful perceptions."

The slow, rumbling propulsion of the tune drives it home in the last verse, "We came up from the subway on the music midnight makes, to Charlie's bass and Lester's saxophone in taxi horns and brakes." It's the spirit in the night that these musicians strive to capture, both Mingus and Mitchell, and it is this sort of emotional collaboration that makes for the best fusion of all. Joni concludes the song with a single enthusiasm of an ambitious student and the wisdom of an experienced lover. There's innocence in that word, and dread, too, and Charlie riding the contradictions straight into the heart of a lunatic heaven.

When Charlie speaks of Lester
You know someone great has gone
The sweetest swinging music man
Had a Porkie Pig hat on

As Joni eases into the Mingus portion of her show, long streaks of lightning stretch from the sky and rain begins to fall in a blinding deluge. It's a bit spooky as if Mingus himself were trying to make his presence felt throwing a final curveball at the Canadian folkie and her young white fans. This is not just a cleansing rain, but a storm that seems to contain the fury of the ages. Twenty minutes into the downpour, water begins to run down from the hill into the reserved seat amphitheater, creating a literal bubbling brook under our feet. Ten minutes later, with the sound board already in a pool of water, the concert is cut abruptly short. It takes a train to laugh, it takes a friend to cry.

Hours later, as we snuggled deeply into our Chicago bed, lightning continued to streak the sky.

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Added to Library on October 7, 2006. (6293)


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