"There was once a word used---swing. Swing went in one direction, it was linear, and everything had to be played with an obvious pulse and that's very restrictive. But I use the term 'rotary perception.' If you get a mental picture of the beat existing within a circle, you're more free to improvise. People used to think the notes had to fall on the center of the beats in the bar at intervals like a metronome, with three or four men in the rhythm section accenting the same pulse. That's like parade music or dance music. But imagine a circle surrounding each beat-each guy can play his notes anywhere in that circle, and it gives him a feeling he has more space. The notes fall anywhere inside the circle, but the original feeling for the beat isn't changed. If one in the group loses confidence, somebody hits the beat again. The pulse is inside you. When you're playing with musicians who think this way you can do anything. Anybody can stop and let the others go on. It's called strolling…."
---Charles Mingus, Beneath the Underdog
Joni Mitchell's new album, Mingus, is about a lot of different kinds of circles, from the closing of this cycle of Charles Mingus's incarnation (as his Vedantists would put it) to the ah-wooooos of the wolves in the Canadian forests. Since most of the record's production was overseen by Mingus, and he wrote most of the tunes, the musical circles he mentions above abound. But Mitchell has been playing with circles of her own on her last couple albums, playing with the circular placement of notes, improvising both rhythmically (along the horizontal line implied by Mingus's quote) and harmonically (along a vertical line).
This is nothing new within the jazz tradition, of course, but Joni Mitchell is only nominally part of that tradition, even after the release of this album. Which is not to put her down. Her tradition is a guitar-oriented, country-music-based one, while his is a piano-and-horn-oriented, blues-based one. Attempts to make a unified artistic statement out of the tension between these two traditions have been cropping up with increasing frequency in recent years, but it's usually been in the form of jazz going to rock. When a prerock style ("folk") approaches jazz in a thoughtful way, the results (John Martyn, Tim Buckley's later work) are usually so iconoclastic that popular success is unlikely, unless, as with Dan Hicks or David Grisman, the jazz era invoked is a bygone one.
And that is why Mingus is sure to be controversial. It works, but it works as a Joni Mitchell album largely composed by Charles Mingus, not as either the final specific bit of the Mingus legacy or as a generalized memorial or tribute album. It is a tribute, but in the very personal vocabulary of an idiosyncratic artist. It's even got one song, "The Wolf That Lives in Lindsey," which doesn't seem to have anything to do with Mingus and sounds left over from one of her recent albums. Actually, it fits, but I'll get to that.
That we've got here is Joni Mitchell gently easing further into a territory she's been exploring for some time, and doing a much better job of it than on Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, because the guiding hand of Mingus is more assured than her own. She's not so much trying to become a jazz singer as trying to adapt her narrative/confessional style to the conventions of improvised jazz-vocal lyrics, where the placement of vowels and syllables and the creation of irregular internal rhyme-schemes are as important as, or more important than, the lyrical content itself. In other words, her model here is more Eddie Jefferson than Billie Holiday. Her framework is some tunes which were worked up by some more traditionally oriented jazz musicians (Eddie Gomez, Phil Woods, Gerry Mulligan, Dannie Richmond) under Mingus's direction, then handed over to a stone fusion band (Stanley Clarke, John McLaughlin, Jan Hammer) whose efforts were discarded, and finally interpreted by musicians who straddle the fence (Jaco Pastorius, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock). The real acid test is where she takes a Mingus chestnut, "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," and adds her lyrics. The band passes with straight A's, she sings nicely, and the lyric, a brave try, nearly succeeds even though it's just a bit over literal.
The only miss is "The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines," a fairly ordinary Mingus stroll blues that illustrates his point about circles better than anything else on the album, but which is sporadically marred by a clangorous, overwrought Pastorius brass arrangement that threatens to explode the whole piece. The other two new Mingus numbers are triumphs, especially "Chair in the Sky," a piece of lyricism that approaches Mingus's best. I envy those who heard its orchestral rendition in New York some weeks back. It makes use of the famed Mingus thorough-composition (or "extended form"), and Mitchell rides the swells of the vocal part expertly, displaying vocal technique and range I never knew she had. The tune of "Sweet Sucker Dance" is very close to that of "Chair," if a bit more amorphous, and this makes the performance perhaps a bit less satisfying, if that's not splitting hairs.
Wisely, the band on these tracks doesn't try to imitate Mingus, although it continues the Mingus tradition of making a small ensemble sound much larger than it is. Especially notable are Wayne Shorter's tiny, breathy punctuations, which come when they are least anticipated, really playing with those circles. Pastorius, surely the focus of much attention because he's the bass player, is, like Mingus in a large ensemble, most noticeable playing high-register bits that imply low-register pedal points, and manages to evoke his previous work with Mitchell while fulfilling Mingus's compositional requirements.
But like I said, when all is said and done, this is Joni Mitchell's album. The words are hers, her interpretation of Mingus's music and his world. Nowhere is this fact more evident than on "God Must Be a Boogie Man," which is nothing more than a rewrite of the first chapter of Mingus's autobiography set to music that sounds like an impression of the actual Mingus tunes on the album. And then there's "The Wolf that Lives in Lindsey", where it all comes together-the circular sense of tonality and pitch-placement she's been experimenting with, Mingus's circular sense of time rendered on her de-tuned guitar and Don Alias's congas, and the sort of gossipy lyric-writing she's been doing for the last couple of years. As for whether it has anything to do with a tribute to Mingus, listen to the chords those wolves are making and tell me that any musician with an interest in root tones wouldn't like to play behind that. (I find it interesting that Mitchell decided to use the wolves in the song because they were "in the right key"!)
Considering how many things could have gone wrong with this record, I'm very happy to see it succeed as well as it does. I could surely have done without the little snips of conversation sprinkled throughout, which get very annoying very fast, and I wish the air of sanctity that hovers over the album as a result was thinned out a little. Nevertheless, though Mingus fans may sniff and Mitchell fans likewise, people who don't let labels trap them can have a very good time exploring what's here to hear.