This album is an act of love compromised by misperception and sublimation. And although it has some beautiful moments, ironically most of the credit must go to Mingus, not Mitchell.
Charles Mingus, one of the innovative jazz bassists and perhaps the greatest big band jazz leader since Duke Ellington, died Jan 5, at the age of 56, in Mexico. He died of amyotropic lateral sclerosis, and during the last 18 months of his life he was in severe pain, finding it difficult to talk, let alone play bass.
Mitchell somehow got in touch with him on her first album since 1977' "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter", a flawed, self-indulgent, ultimately boring double album that was both a musical and racial experiment; it was the first time Mitchell consciously went blackface.
"Mingus" contains six long tunes, four with music by Mingus himself, the other two solely by Mitchell. The rest of the album consists of "raps", snatches of tape recorded conversation from parties Mingus attended where he vamped on his life and image saying, he'd outlive the Duke, or that he was born lucky because he was blessed by God.
The album's theme is Mingus, the big black boogie man whose life was tortured by the shadow of the Duke, by illness, what he conceived of as sin and salvation, and his own protean creativity. For fine examples of Mingus's talent in voicing, melody and pulse, try "Nostalgia In Times Square" (Columbia), a double-album collection of his big-band pieces circa 1960, or the comprehensive "Passions Of A Man" (Atlanta), which covers big bands and workshops from "Pithecanthropus Erectus" (1956), featuring fiery altoist Jackie McLeon, to his final version of "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat", his tribute to Lester Young (1977).
Mitchell's "Mingus" is riddled by self-doubt masquerading as homage. Mitchell's paintings adorning the elaborate, tribute-paying cover are better than her own music. Granted, she's singing freer than ever, and this tribute to a man she obviously misses and reveres has brought her in contact with her own wellsprings: a pure, eclectic soprano, a spacious sense of time and an acute, often precious sensitivity, often mawkishly underlined by Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, whose instrumental virtuosity on soprano sax and piano (respectively) is wasted here.
Jaco Pastorius' resonant arco bass is all over the album. It's overdone, and the novelty of his tone that stunned on Mitchell's "Hejira" is becoming a cliche, inimitable as it is Mitchell herself is delving into seat-singing, with some success (the nearly-successful "A Chair In The Sky", one of the few lyrics characterized by precision), but she only really gets going on "Sweet Sucker Dance," a languid recognition of and regret over an interracial romance, and the single great tune here, "The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines," featuring fun, sharp lyrics and a fantastic arrangement with ecstatic horns and laser production.
Her lyrics to "Pork Pie Hat," marvelously presented in earlier incarnations by Mingus himself (several times) and Jeff Beck on "Blow By Blow," perhaps the definitive fusion album, are embarrassing. She attempts to trace the history of racism in America vis a vis the jazz musicians, sympathizing with the difficulties of Lester Young and his white wife. Finally she says, embracing but not incorporating the non-verbal message Mingus delivered for over 30 years, that as long as "black babies dance" on the sidewalk everything's OK.
Perhaps this perspective on Mitchell is too narrow; perhaps the thing to emphasize is her homage itself, the ironic (and often-repeated) fact that in American culture, it takes the celebratory act of a white musicIan to bring the achievements to the fore.
Mingus was preachy, didactic, conscious of his power to persuade (check out Gables of Faubus" off "Mingus Ah Um," (Columbia), but his art was never self-righteous. Mitchell, by contrast, has no real anger, instead she offers a highly refined, fashionable sense of ennui linked to a conventional liberalism. And her album about Mingus, no matter how well-intended, is ultimately sanctimonious. That's a world away from "Mingus" confuses the two.
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