Mingus – Joni Mitchell, 1979
I’ve been trying to find a way to re-organize my records, so, today I decided to go through them all and try to let go of a few. For the record (pun a little intended), this is one of the hardest things for me to do. Come to think of it, this blog is evidence of that, since I have virtually given up on my original project. I was on an 80’s pop kick – listening to Ric Ocasek, Corey Hart and Jennifer Rush – when I found I was in need of a break. Most of my vinyl is chronological, so I flipped over to my records from the 70’s. The first record I saw was Joni Mitchell’s Mingus staring me down, with Mitchell’s abstract paintings of Charles Mingus. From the moment I set it on the turntable, I knew I would be out of commission for a bit.
The record is a tribute to and collaborative project with composer and bassist, Charles Mingus, who would die just months after Mingus was finished recording. Mitchell writes and sings lyrics over Mingus’ instrumental compositions, and intersperses the tracks with cassette recorded clips, each labeled as a “RAP”. The record allows Joni to delve into her love of Jazz in an authentic and curious way, while also offer a memorial to an amazing man of Jazz. Mingus was not always met with positive reviews, but I find to be professional respect and admiration in action. Plus she gets to work with a pick-of-the-litter rhythm section, that certainly deserves a shout out: Jaco Pastorious on bass (he also worked with Joni on Hejira), Peter Erskine on drums, and Herbie Hancock on electric keys. Oh yeah, and no bigs, but Wayne Shorter is playing sax. It’s 1979, and they’re not fooling around, but it’s also important to not bring too many expectations to this record. It doesn’t sound like a Joni Mitchell album, or a Charles Mingus album, or even really like most Jazz. I think that’s where a lot of critics got stuck.
The whole album opens with a clip of Joni and friends singing him the traditional happy birthday, complete with Charles arguing about his age with his wife. It turned into quite the tribute, really. “God Must Be A Boogie Man” is probably one of the most effective lyrical-music connections. Joni sounds playful as she thoughtfully tackles the strange theology of the trinity. The final verse is my favourite:
“Which would it be Mingus, One, Two, or Three; which one do you think he’d want the world to see? Well, world opinion’s not a lot of help, when a man’s only trying to find out how to feel about himself! In the plan, oh the cock-eyed plan, God must be a boogie man.”
Jaco shines on this track, with is melody-filled bass lines running all over the place, especially in the beautiful long intro. The smooth sense that comes from Jaco’s bass and Joni’s voice is juxtaposed with a raw, off-key, repeating response of the title line. I can’t find any video of them recording or playing this live, but here’s the audio in video form:
Next, another “RAP” takes place, where Mingus is talking about his future funeral, over jazz playing in the background. “A Chair in the Sky,” seems to be the logical choice to follow such a conversation, which is one of three new songs by Mingus for this particular project. At times, “A Chair in the Sky,” moves between its usual low tempo reflective feel to an up tempo swing. I just wish it did that a bit more often. Still, the track showcases Herbie and Wayne a little more. “A Wolf that Lives in Lindsey” finishes off Side A, and is a little more Joni Mitchell-like, except for some Wolf howls. Yeah, it’s not my favourite, but Joni reminds me that’s she’s really quite underrated as a guitar player. Overtones are everywhere! They should replace the fake wolves!
Side B opens to the best “RAP” so far, with a short scat between Mitchell and Mingus, but it too quickly goes into “Sweet Sucker Dance”, another track written for the album, that I think embodies a bit more of Mingus’ fun and creative style than “A Chair in the Sky”. I actually wish I could hear it without Joni, since the interaction between keys and bass leaves so much up to the imagination and interpretation. Still, the best new track, “The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines” is saved for nearly last, and is just a whole lot of fun. It doesn’t sound a lot like Mingus, but it does sound like what you would expect from the musicians present in a good jam session. The last lyric of “But the cleaner from Des Moines could put a coin in the door of a John, and get twenty for one. It’s just luck!” goes straight into a “Lucky”, another short “RAP”, before Mingus closes with Charles Mingus’ own tribute to saxophonist Lester Young. The most well-known track on the album, Joni’s lyrics can be heard as direct lifts from the original solos recorded on Mingus’ Ah Um. This, along with the opening, I think are the best collaborative Mingus/Mitchell tracks. Mingus well remembers and loves its namesake, and I have just had a wonderful afternoon thanks to all the musicians that took a risk on this project.
Now I suppose I should get back to purging unnecessary vinyl. Or simply finding some more old gems I’ve forgotten about.