In the opening chapter of his autobiography Beneath the Underdog Charles Mingus describes a conversation with his psychiatrist. He tells the shrink that he is three separate entities - an aggressor, a mild mannered reciprocant of all types of shit and a disconcerted observer. Asked which image he would like the world to see, Mingus snaps, "What do I care what the world sees? I'm only trying to find out how I feel about myself."
It's an interesting story that tells much of one of jazz's most enigmatic characters. Often given over to violence, an early spokesman on racial injustice, Mingus was also a deeply religious man who, between periods of drugs, drink and depression, had a lifelong search for God and his own personal place in the universe.
"God Must Be a Boogie Man" (a line from that chapter) is the only known Mingus composition on this album. Joni Mitchell wrote it two days after the jazz legend's death. The opening track, one immediately feels that Mitchell is well in touch with the Mingus magic. The verses pertain to the three separate sides of Mingus with the one line chorus punctuating each verse irreverently.
When the news of the Mingus/Mitchell collaboration filtered through last year, fans of both performers awaited the outcome with interest. Not that the collaboration was such a drastic departure for either party - Mitchell has long utilized jazzmen with more than a little jazz influence in her works and Mingus has always been a man given over to the unexpected, always ready to try a little experimenting. Despite the sometimes maudlin 'raps' that separate the six tracks in an attempt at thematic cohesion, the result is an unqualified success that followers of both artists should find richly rewarding.
Mingus fans will be familiar with his wide range of influences: the gospel church, Ellington, and the wide spectrum of jazz styles that Mingus covered during his apprenticeship - New Orleans (Armstrong), swing (Hampton) and finally bop (Parker) - and an early tutor Lloyd Reece. Reece taught his pupils to imitate the sounds around them and when Mingus started his jazz workshop he coujouled [sic] his sidemen to concentrate on the sound in their heads and not the scraps of paper which accounted for his compositions.
And here lies the main problem for the musicians on Mingus - to wing it, Mingus style and to risk interrupting Mitchell's lyrical flow, or just play around with the melody. It is as much their successful compromise as it is Mitchell's wonderful sense of the Mingus melodies that make this album such a great achievement.
With the exception of "Drycleaner [sic] from Des Moines", the tracks are all melancholy, wispy ballads. Aided by two percussionists, the bulk of the work is in the hands of Herbie Hancock (piano), Wayne Shorter (soprano sax), Jaco Pastorius (bass) and Peter Erskine (drums). Their restraint places the onus on Mitchell who has rarely been in finer voice. With Mingus unable to appear (anyotrophic lateral schlerosis [sic], the terminal disease from which he suffered, had taken away his ability to play) special attention is placed on Pastorius who has proved on past Mitchell albums that he is her finest bass accompanist, here he proves that his style is adaptable to the Mingus intricacies. While Erskine provides the perfect backdrop to Pastorius' bass, Hancock weaves in and out of the melodies leaving Shorter to fill the gaps.
The most outstanding part of the album though is the successful manner in which Mitchell has faithfully captured the appropriate imagery and moods of the themes. On "Chair in the Sky" the theme is of the inevitable regrets of the dying man. Sound morbid? It isn't. On the whole, Mingus' compositions are celebrations of life. And death is just another experience. Mitchell understands this. And then "Sweet Sucker Dance."
We are survivors
Some get broken
Some get mended
Some can't surrender
They're too well defended
Some get lucky
Some are blessed
And some pretend
This is only a dance.
The album closes with the only previously recorded number, "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat", Mingus' Lester Young tribute. Mingus wrote the tune shortly after Young's death. Mitchell wrote the lyrics while Mingus was down in Cuernavaca, Mexico visiting faith healers in a last ditch attempt to find a cure for his illness. Mingus died there on January 4th.
Mitchell's love and respect for Charles Mingus and the distress she felt at his death so close to the album's completion is painfully sincere. With Mingus, Joni Mitchell has paid the man a fitting and often moving tribute. He could not have asked for a finer obituary.
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