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Down Beat
August 9, 1979

RECORD REVIEWS
***** EXCELLENT
**** VERY GOOD
*** GOOD
** FAIR
* POOR

Asylum 5E-505: Happy Birthday 1975; God Must Be A Boogie Man; Funeral (rap); A Chair In The Sky; The Wolf That Lives In Lindsey; I's A Muggin'; Sweet Sucker Dance; Coin In The Pocket (rap); The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines; Lucky (rap); Goodbye Porkpie Hat.

Personnel: Mitchell, guitar and vocals; Jaco Pastorius, bass guitar; Herbie Hancock, electric piano; Wayne Shorter, soprano sax; Peter Erskine, drums; Don Alias, congas, percussion; Emil Richards, percussion; unidentified horns. arranged by Pastorius (cut 9).

This is a wonderful piece of work.

From all reports, the trepidation in Jon Mitchell's heart as to how this project might be accepted has been matched only by the skepticism of scores of jazz purists. But the proof is here, and Joni and her critics can forget their fears. Mingus is so ambitious, so painstakingly constructed and so special, that even in those moments when the deed fails, the thought carries the day. And when it all clicks as on "Porkpie Hat", which, after three hearings, I can no longer listen to dry-eyed--it soars with the breadth and majesty Mingus so often achieved.

Perhaps the ultimate crossover concept-one of rock/folk/pop's most revered women dedicating a document to one of jazz's true geniuses-MINGUS is really a collaboration. On four of the songs, the late bassist supplied the music and Joni wrote the lyrics; her words for the improvisatory, often non-strophic melodies make this the first real advance in the jazz art of vocalese since Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. For "God Must Be A Boogie Man," Joni wrote the music but adapted the lyrics from the famous first chapter of Mingus' autobiography, finding the hidden rhymes in his colorful prose ("He is three -one's in the middle unmoved/ Waiting to show what he sees to the other two"), The only song that sounds out of place is "Wolf", a not untypical Mitchell tale of a young man with darkness in his soul. But even this gains some validity from the fact that Mingus heard it and approved its sentiments before its inclusion on the album.

The subject probably shouldn't come up, but for the record, this IS a jazz date. The particulars have precedent. For instance, it has long been jazz practice for a soloist to hire a working unit as sidemen, but to omit the leader (to solidify the soloist's own leadership); on MINGUS, Joni is backed, essentially, by Weather Report without its leader, Joe Zawinul. More important, on the more conventional tunes that make up the second side, the band follows normal jazz style, wherein the improvised accompaniment makes the melody's outlines blurry and subtle. The spare format gives a clear view of Hancock's empathic backing. There is also innovation. The lead instrument on most tracks, besides Joni's voice, is Pastorius' bass, mixed high and booming along as a supple, full-bodied counterpoint-much the role usually taken by a horn. (By contrast, Hancock is mixed at middle depth and Shorter, despite a coy, coltish solo on "Dry Cleaner," offers small/effective moans as if from another studio.)

There should be no question that Joni Mitchell can perform as a credible, and here excellent, jazz singer. Her version of Annie Ross' "Twisted" some years back was presentiment: Joni is the closest thing we have in the '70s to the rangy, pristine tone and cool distance Ross embodied. Listen to the big band-backed "Dry Cleaner;" it's really Joni's "Farmers' Market," right down to the invitingly hip lyrics she's spun on a tiny, nonsensical topic. (The song follows a vignette of Mingus saying, "I'm not rich, but I always had a few coins in my pocket." It's about a small businessman from Iowa on a hot streak in Vegas, and in perfect Ross style, Joni sings, "He's got three oranges, three lemons, three plums-I'm losin' my taste for fruit.") On "Porkpie Hat" she caresses the ballad with a gentle reminder of Billie Holiday: that sweetly plummeting glissando Lady Day often used, like her voice was falling off a hill. Joni has taken brilliant bits of phrasing from these women, but mostly retains her own unique style, and the combination is devastating.

I suppose my complaints center on the first side, which is somber, if not really depressing. After a boozy "Happy Birthday" comes the Joni-Jaco duet of "Boogie Man," which suffers some from the bass guitarist's picturesque, but by now well-worn explosions of harmonics. After that, a backstage tape of Mingus discussing his own funeral, and the difficult "Chair In The Sky": difficult because of the freely episodic melody, but worth the effort. (This was reportedly Mingus' last composition, and it deserves full orchestration.) There is a bit too much melodrama here, a touch that is perhaps too heavy. It bogs a bit, though it offers important music and sentiment.

But the second side is perfect. "Sweet Sucker Dance" is a love song to life: "We move in measures/Through love's changing faces like it was only a dance." "Dry Cleaner" has so much zest and fun and it's a perfect set-up for "Porkpie Hat," the masterpiece. Joni's lyrics, quite frankly, are profound: in the first five words, she manages to weave the song's original subject (Lester Young) and its composer into an epic framework of great emotional power:

"When Charlie speaks of Lester/You know someone great has gone/The sweetest swinging music man/Had a porky-pig hat on/A bright star in a dark age/When the bandstands had a thousand ways of/Refusing/A black man/Admission/Black musician/In those days they put him in an underdog position/Cellars and chitlins..."

After a fascinating mid-section development of both melody and words, she weighs in with this: "We came up from the subway/ On the music midnight makes/To Charlie's bass and Lester's saxophone/ln taxi horns and brakes/Now Charlie's down in Mexico/ With the healers...." This is the poetry joni Mitchell has been away from too long. In a way, what Mingus did for Lester in writing that song, Joni has done for Mingus in making this album. She gave her best on this one, and it's proved to be more than enough.

(Leonard Feather interviews Joni Mitchell in an upcoming down beat.)

 

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