Mingus – Joni Mitchell

Mingus
by Joni Mitchell

Asylum, June 1979
Mixed by Joni Mitchell
Paintings by Joni Mitchell

side oneside two
1 Happy Birthday 1975 (rap)
(Music Mildred J. Hill)
1 I’s A Muggin (rap)
2 God Must Be A Boogie Man
(Joni Mitchell)
2 Sweet Sucker Dance
(lyrics Joni Mitchell, Music Charles Mingus)
3 Funeral (rap)3 Coin in The Pocket (rap)
4 A Chair In The Sky
(lyrics: Joni Mitchell, music Charles Mingus and Joni Mitchell)
4 Dry Cleaner From Des Moines
(lyrics Joni Mitchell, Music Charles Mingus)
5 The Wolf That Lives in Lindsey
(Joni Mitchell)
5 Lucky (rap)
6 Goodbye Pork Pie Hat
(lyrics Joni Mitchell, Music Charles Mingus)

MUSICIANS
Joni Mitchell- guitar & vocals
Jaco Pastorius – bass. Horn arrangement on Dry Cleaner From Des Moines
Wayne Shorter – soprano sax
Herbie Hancock- electric piano
Peter Erskine – drums
Don Alias – congas
Emil Richards – percussion

CHART
UK albums #24
US albums #17
Canada Albums #37

WHAT THE CRITICS SAID

jonimitchell.com is one of the best artist websites I’ve seen. If you click on Mingus (or follow the link) she has included dozens of contemporary reviews of the album. Many are extremely positive, but I’m being selective because the theme here is that the album attracted enough negative responses to merit inclusion in the Reviled! The Albums Critics Love To Hate series.

No doubt they all believed they were involved in a labour of love, but I’d swap Mingus gruffly singing “Devil Woman” on “Mingus Oh Yeah” for anything here. this album really sees Joni Mitchell leaving her mass popularity in search of a more personal style, and finding only idiosyncrasy.
Michael Watts, Melody Maker 16 June 1979

I find no illuminations on this record — it’s merely pleasant, something one wouldn’t expect after reading the Mingus autobiography “Beneath The Underdog,” a book filled with rough, violent, vibrant images of crude sex and self-mythologising. Mingus was an artist, but he was always a bullshit artist too. When Mitchell gets anally retentive the only difference is that she doesn’t seem to realise she’s doing it, from “The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines” to her interpretations of “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” through “The Wolf That Lives In Lindsey” and “A Chair In The Sky,” oh, that reverential tone! Thankfully, Mitchell and Mingus never got round to their proposed musical version of the work of that arch wanker TS Eliot.
Sandy Robertson, Sounds Magazine, 30 June 1979

The boldest eclectic of them all, is Joni Mitchell, who at long last teeters right into the jazz world with “Mingus” (Asylum K53091). The concept seems to reek of pretension – just after the great man’s death she releases an album consisting mostly of jointly composed pieces (his music, her words), dressed up with bursts of tape-recordings of Mingus at his birthday party or talking about his ideal funeral and her own not too wonderful paintings of him.  She’s just a little out of her depth at times, and there’s not the easy, adventurous confidence of, say, “The Hissing of Summer Lawns”, but that said she makes a pretty impressive go of it … Whatever else, success hasn’t limited her musical sense of adventure. 
Robin Deneslow, The Guardian 15 August 1979

A brave attempted collaboration with the jazz bassist and composer; unfortunately the results are sketchy at best.
New Rolling Stone Album Guide, 2004

Mingus, her 1979 collaboration with Charles Mingus before his death makes her seem like the jazz dilettante that people accused her of being. The ultimate result doesn’t serve either of their legacies well.
Pitchfork, online

Okay, okay, a brave experiment, but lots of times, experiments fail. There’s more spontaneity, wisdom and humour in the 2:25 of Mingus “raps” than in all her hand-tooled lyrics, and her voice isn’t rich or graceful enough to flesh out music that gains no swing from a backing band a.k.a. Weather Report. C +
Robert Christgau, Christgau’s Guide To Albums of the 70s

Joni Mitchell’s album “Mingus” is going to catch considerable flak for being ponderous where the late Charles Mingus was light-hearted, for being uptight where he was loose, and for being un-Mingus-like in general. And the flak launchers will be right, in their *own* context. I’m no Mingus expert, but my impression is that, in addition to being something of a mystic off the stage, he was a catalyst for improvisation and a sort of bridge between traditional and “modern” (as in far-out) jazzmen on the stage. No doubt this is connected with his having worked with Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong on the one end and Charlie “Bird” Parker on the other. Mingus kept the laymen from getting lost while giving his instrumentalists all the improvisational freedom they needed, but Joni’s “memorial” album has danged near *no* improvisation.  But then it is not supposed to be a Charles Mingus album. It is a Joni Mitchell album for which Mingus wrote four melodies and doubtless provided inspiration. 
Noel Coppage, Stereo Review, October 1979

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.
Ed Ward, The Village Voice 30 June 1979

 Joni Mitchell has little justification to be futzing around with the moody expressionism of jazz, as she does on Mingus. Though the music and lyrics jell better this time than on her previous Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter (a bottomless pit of amorphous atonalism and free-associative lyrics that expressed the forgettable in terms of the incomprehensible), Mitchell’s primary problem on Mingus is that she’s not much of a jazz singer. Her voice sounds thin and attenuated when it should sound alive, brassy, and full-bodied, pallid when it should have color. You find yourself longing for Annie Ross, or Patti Waters.
Ted Burke, Daily Guardian, 11 January 1980

Joni Mitchell, similarly, was an innovator who pushed her own musicians to transcend their own abilities – it is no coincidence that Charles Mingus wanted to work with her. One of the most sophisticated and accomplished composers in her field, Mitchell’s work with Mingus may not represent the zenith of either artist’s oeuvre, but it does represent a new achievement in collaboration, experimentation and courageous artistic exploration. What could have been a woeful epitaph to one career and the death knell to the commercial shelf-life of another in fact stands as something of a bizarre yet beautiful artistic effort – and almost a triumph. It is a textbook for “crossover” artists to follow, and went some small way in blurring the elitist lines drawn between genres.
Matthew Barton, Jazz Journal, 9 July 2019

After 40 years on Earth, Mingus has only grown into its own as one of the most important titles in the Joni Mitchell catalog, the fearlessness by which she channeled her love and appreciation for jazz and created a deeply personal and exploratory thematic work with little care as to what the record business, music critics, or anyone for that matter, had to say.
Ron Hart, Grammy,com, 2019

JONI MITCHELL

Joni Mitchell was on a roll, after a series of memorable classic albums … Blue, For The Roses, Court and Spark, Miles of Aisles, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Hejira, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, For me, Hissing of Summer Lawns and Hejira are among the greatest 70s albums of all. Inexplicably, Stephen Holden of Rolling Stone went for The Hissing of Summer Lawns giving it two stars, which should make it a candidate for the Reviled! series, but fortunately he was a lone (wrong) voice.

At The Band’s The Last Waltz, she ranked second from top in having three songs rather than two (Neil Young, Eric Clapton) or one (Neil Diamond, Ronnie Hawkins). Bob Dylan had four. That’s heirarchy. There are tales that rehearsing the three Joni songs was by far the hardest thing in the whole process, with a testy Joni complaining that they couldn’t play her material. Judging by the complete concert, she had a point. Coyote shone, but both Shadows and Light and Furry Sings The Blues were messy. On The Complete Last Waltz 4 CD set they sound much improved, but on earlier “uncleaned” bootlegs they were poor.

To a degree, The Band were not an ideal match with her. They struggled with the rhythms. There are three kinds of bass players. Jaco Pastorius is at the highly accomplished and technical end of the spectrum. Then you have James Jamerson and Duck Dunn, holding the rhythm with solid riffs. My favourite bass players are Paul McCartney and Rick Danko because they play for the song, and what they bring is the choice of notes no one else would have thought of. That’s a nice way of saying Rick and Jaco (who were friends) had very different playing styles, and the Joni Mitchell songs just aren’t bass propelled in the same way. Listening to The Complete Last Waltz, I strongly suspect Robbie and Garth’s parts have been ‘improved’ compared to the bootlegs.

Levon Helm: Joni Mitchell sang three songs from her two most recent albums … It was after midnight, and the crowd was subdued. The momentum of the show had been lost halfway through Joni’s set.
Levon Helm / Stephen Davies, This Wheel’s On Fire.

As a set ender, Furry Sings The Blues (Neil Young on harmonica) was as inappropriate as the Beat poets. To be fair they went on to Acadian Driftwood then on to Neil Diamond, so it was all slowing down. However, within that Joni Mitchell, was typically left of field in declining to do the obvious. OK, she’s allocated three songs. Do two new ones, then you do Big Yellow Taxi, Chelsea Morning, Woodstock or Both Sides Now. That was the obvious right choice for the show, but not for Joni.

I tried to run away myself
To run away and wrestle with my ego

Joni Mitchell, Coyote

Ego? That may be the issue with 1979’s Mingus album.

After the three albums before, I bought it the day it came out. Many did. It went to US #17 as a result. If you find one, like Chicago III, it’s likely to be in near mint condition because it left most purchasers perplexed, so virtually unplayed. It was an album for jazz musicians.

It was too clever by half.

BASS PLAYERS

Joini Mitchell had fascinating bass lines in the 70s with Jaco Pastorius on her great albums. In 1992, she married another jazz- based bass player, Larry Klein.

She said:

The bass players that I worked with before just kind of played through it like four beats to the bar, you know, polka-dotting along. And they couldn’t see the shapes of the music or where the pressure points were. They couldn’t grasp it. So you had to wait for somebody like Jaco to come along who had one foot in rock ‘n’ roll and one foot in jazz. And when Jaco came in on the dates, he was doing what I wanted, which was a more classical counterpoint to my melodies – and leaving space – it was personality that deserved to be in the foreground. We were conceptually kindred.
Joni Mitchell, Portrait of Jaco: The Early Years, audio biography, 2003

In 1978 she was contacted by legendary jazz bassist Charles Mingus. He had heard her Paprika Plains and wanted to work with her. The collaboration resulted in Mingus, although Mingus died on 5 January 1979, halfway through the project.

Joni Mitchell: The first time I saw his face, it shone up at me with a joyous mischief. I liked him immediately. I had come to New York to hear six new songs he had written for me. I was honored! I was curious! It was as if I had been standing by a river- one toe in the water – and Charlie came by and pushed me in – sink or swim – him laughing at me dog-paddling around in the currents of black classical music.
Joni Mitchell, sleeve note to Mingus

The album was released in June 1979. It’s common to say it was recorded with Weather Report. No, Weather Report without Joseph Zawinul is Hamlet without the prince, The Band without Robbie Robertson, The Who without Pete Townsend, The Kinks without Ray Davies. It was recorded with members of Weather Report. Most notably her collaborator, Jaco Pastorius, but also Weather Report co-founder Wayne Shorter on sax, Peter Erskine on drums, and Don Alias on percussion. The line up was completed by Herbie Hancock on electric piano (so replacing Zawinul).

Joni had done her research. In writing the album she had ‘experimental sessions’ with people who had played with Mingus, including John McLaughlin, Tony Williams, Gerry Mulligan, Jan Hammer and another legend of bass playing, Stanley Clarke.

Joni Mitchell: I cut each song three or four times, I was after something personal, something musical, something indescribable.
Joni Mitchell, sleeve note to Mingus

Is it Jazz?

Let’s see what Downbeat had to say:

This is a wonderful piece of work. 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.) 
Downbeat 9 August 1979

My problem with the album back in 1979 was that while I’d heard of Mingus,. I’d not knowingly listened to any. That must have been true of so many Joni Mitchell fans. Look at the sleeve of the Black Saint and The Sinner Lady, and titles are perplexing:

Mode F – Group and Solo Dance
Of Love, Pain and Passioned Revolt, then Farewell, My Beloved ’til it’s Freedom Day

It wasn’t my kind of thing. I have every Weather Report album. Mahavishnu Orchestra. I had a few albums by Miles Davis. I have Volunteered Slavery by Rahsaan Roland Kirk. I had no Coltrane, no Charlie Parker, no Charles Mingus. I was ignorant then, and am no expert now.

Listening as I write to The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady (Group Dancers, especially) I am getting into it. Like this album, Mingus, I reckon it’s way more impressive on the hi-fi system I have now than it could have been back in 1979.

SIDE ONE

I’ll ignore the raps. As reviewers have noted, they give interesting context the first couple of times, but rapidly become equivalents to adverts for detergent during an enthralling TV drama. They’re not even good recordings.

God Must Be A Boogie Man

Both words and music are by Joni Mitchell. Was it the best place to start? It’s definitely going to fail the “old grey whistle test.” That was the mark of a hit record, if the ageing doorman at the BBC started whistling the melody. Or even could whistle it. Or in this case look totally perplexed, shake his head and walk away.

Which would it be
Mingus one or two or three
Which one do you think he’d want the world to see

It’s all melodic bass playing from Jaco who is the leading instrument, and savage staccato guitar chopping from Joni, with the voice lightly and softly meandering over the top. Then we have a strange comical chorus line yelling out the title. Add sudden loud crashes of percussion. This is not easy listening though impressive enough from vinyl turned up loud on a good hi-fi. The bass sound is fabulous. In many ways it’s more avant garde music than “jazz.”

She redid the song on Shadows and Light a year later. It’s also been covered several times, but mainly by jazz or classical musicians.

She performed it on the performances film, Refuge of The Roads. This has B&W film of Mingus and then Joni on electric guitar, with just bass guitar (Larry Klein) and drums. Plus that chorus to belt out ‘God must be a boogieman!’ from time to time.

A Chair In The Sky

The jazz giant handed off a melody to Mitchell and asked for lyrics describing all the things he would miss when he left Earth. Peering through the eyes of her heaven-bound cowriter, Mitchell reminisces about old friends while pondering money unearned and women unkissed.
Olivia Horn, Pitchfork

Herbie Hancock leads it off on electric piano, then Jaco’s bass growls in to play with it. Joni is trying to emulate 50s female jazz singers, warbling and weaving over the top. The jazzers among the reviewers are sniffy about her vocal tone in comparison. I’m not qualified to judge. Soprano sax comes and goes. It’s hard to grasp the melody. After several listens over a few days, it’s nowhere near becoming an ear-worm.

The Wolf That Lives In Lindsey

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”!) 
Ed Ward, The Village Voice 30 July 1979

As she sings about snowstorms and darkness and inescapable fate, the noise from her guitar lurks like heavy footsteps approaching in the distance. A recording of howling wolves accompanies it, as if the foreboding message weren’t clear enough. It’s as violent and apocalyptic as Mitchell ever allowed herself to sound.
Sam Sodomsky, Pitchfork

Also only credited to Joni Mitchell. We have those oddly timed grating guitar chords. What’s it about? The subject gets away with murder, his grandpa loved an empire, his sister loved a thief. We have heavy snow, blizzards. The “wolf” “raids and runs through the hills of Hollywood” which are not known for snow,

The cops don’t seem to care
For derelicts or ladies of the night

They’re weeds for yanking out of sight
If you’re smart or rich or lucky
Maybe you’ll beat the laws of ma
n

It’s wonderfully enigmatically ominous. So Lindsey? There is a LindsAy in California, inland near Visalia. Gilbert W. LindsAy was the first black council member in LA, and a highly prominent politician responsible for developing the downtown area. There’s a Lindsey Avenue in Los Angeles county. There’s Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac. I assume these are completely false leads, but I would like to know.

It appears on two compilations: Misses (1996) and Love Has Many Faces (2014).

SIDE TWO



Sweet Sucker Dance

The meandering nature begins to pall. Mingus had used “dance” for the titles of every track on The Black Saint & The Sinner Lady.

Mingus’ melodies give Mitchell’s lyrics different-shaped spaces to fill. Analysis, which she tries in “Sweet Sucker Dance,” falls flat. It’s out of step with his allusive conversational cadences, at odds with the music’s equivocal moods
Ariel Swartley, Rolling Stone, 6 September 1979

The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines

The single. The only possible single, I’d say. It failed to chart. They put God Must Be A Boogie Man on the B-side.

This is another revisited on Shadows and Light. It’s the only one that sticks in my head … and the only track from the album on my in-car Joni Mitchell playlist.

She chooses narrative in “The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines” and is left huffing and quavering behind the jumpy beat. The song only begins to move when she throws out the story and just croons with the horns a little.
Ariel Swartley, Rolling Stone, 6 September 1979


Goodbye Pork Pie Hat

When Charlie speaks of Lester
You know someone great has gone
The sweetest swinging music man
Had a Porkie 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’


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.
Downbeat 9 August 1979

Goodbye Pork Pie Hat was composed by Mingus in 1959 for Mingus Ah Um. Later versions by Mingus were called Theme For Lester Young. (It was an elegy for Lester Young.) Rahsaan Roland Kirk wrote lyrics for his version in 1976, and June Tabor covered Kirk’s version. It proved popular outside the strict jazz sphere with versions by Bert Jansch and John Renbourn, which they kept in the setlist for Pentangle. John McLaughlin recorded an instrumental on My Goal’s Beyond.

It’s the third Mingus track revisited on Shadows and Light.

Shadows and Light

The album was recorded live in September 1979, still keeping Jaco Pastorius on bass and Don Alias on drums, but adding Pat Metheny on lead guitar, Lyle Mays in keyboards, Michael Brecker on sax and The Persuasions on backing vocals. It was the tour directly after Mingus. As such it throws new light -or possibly new shadows – on three songs from Mingus as well as the three mentioned in reference to The Last Waltz. It was released in 1980.

LP one, side oneLP two, side one
IntroductionBlack Crow
In France They Kiss on Main StreetDon’s solo
Edith and The KingpinDreamland
CoyoteFree Man in Paris
Goodbye Pork Pie HatBand introduction
LP one side twoFurry Sings The Blues
The Dry Cleaner From Des MoinesLP two, side two
AmeliaWhy Do Fools Fall in Love
Pat’s soloShadows and Light
HejiraGod Must Be A Boogie Man
Woodstock

It was also filmed and released on VHS and then DVD.
CHART:
UK #63
US #38

Overall

This is the problem. This is a record following a string of successes, so that it climbed to #17 in the US chart, perhaps one of the most avant-garde albums to ever do so. This led to inevitable surprise and distaste from many of those who bought it. It’s too meandering. Too “sudden” in bits and the raps are garbage. I said I was doing this next, and a friend said, ‘The pretentious album.’ I don’t agree in that it’s not pretending to be anything it fails to achieve. Maybe self-indulgent? But it was a case of miss -selling. This is not popular music, it’s not rock, it’s not folk, it’s not even singer-songwriter. It’s poetry set to modern jazz.

There was another way of doing it. She could have arranged with Asylum to make a deal with a specialist label. Some label groups can simply switch to another part of the conglomerate … Asylum was part of WEA. Vanished Gardens in 2018 is by Charles Lloyd and The Marvels with Lucinda Williams, and it’s on jazz imprint Blue Note, not her own Highway 20 / BMG. Van Morrison’s used Blue Note as a label for jazzier projects. When Vangelis wanted to get all classical, he put the result out on Deutsche Grammophon, not his normal Polydor.

Then it could have been directed at jazz reviewers. It’s been playing a lot for days, CD and vinyl. I still find it prickly, with Jaco Pastorius’s bass the thing that keeps my attention on it.

Reviled by some reviews? Yes, justly. A clash of expectation.

THE REVILED ALBUMS ARE (so far) …

Beatles For Sale – The Beatles
Their Satanic Majesties Request … The Rolling Stones
Electric Mud– Muddy Waters
Self Portrait – Bob Dylan
Cahoots – The Band
Wild Life – Wings
Recall The Beginning: A Journey From Eden … The Steve Miller Band
Hard Nose The Highway … Van Morrison
Chicago III … Chicago
Berlin– Lou Reed
Pinups – David Bowie
Born Again – Randy Newman
Mingus – Joni Mitchell

And here’s a rule-breaker. I’d decided one album each, but Van Morrison got so much vituperation from critics (unjustly) in 2021, that I had to add it:

Latest Record Project Volume1… Van Morrison

This list will grow steadily

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s