Mingus represents a partnership of iconoclasts coming together to create something as great as—if not quite greater than—the sum of their collective parts.
A collaboration between Joni Mitchell and the eponymous legendary jazz bassist/composer, Mingus represents a partnership of iconoclasts coming together to create something as great as—if not quite greater than—the sum of their collective parts. Mingus provided Mitchell with a series of six melodies to which she then applied her own lyrics after abandoning a proposed project in which Mingus had requested she condense T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets to create a collaborative musical version. Wisely, Mitchell eschewed this particular direction and instead did what she did best, crafting a strong set of lyrics both personal and abstract, taking cues from Mingus’ own life (“The Wolf that Lives in Lindsay,” easily one of the most complex, esoteric songs in the whole of Mitchell’s catalog) and established compositional repertoire (“Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”).
After toying with jazz structures and working with noted jazz musicians, Mitchell abandoned all pretenses for Mingus and fully embraced her jazziest proclivities. This decision left many long-time fans scratching their heads, fusion fanatics wondering what the hell the majority of Weather Report was doing backing up the former lady of the canyon and everyone else largely indifferent, the album receiving tepid reviews at the time and peaking at #17 on the Billboard Pop Albums chart. It would be her highest charting release until Shine in 2007.
Interspersed amongst the actual compositions are audio snippets of Mitchell’s brief time spent in the presence of the titular genius. “Happy Birthday 1975” has them arguing over Mingus’ age following a woozy rendition of “Happy Birthday,” while “Funeral” has him discussing his funeral plans in a jive-talking rasp. Hearing him throughout adds an additional deeply personal level, linking not only his compositional work, but the lyrical nature of his speaking cadence to create a fully-formed picture of Mingus in the final years of his life.
That he did not live to hear the completed album—he died January 5, 1979, at the age of 56 from Lou Gehrig’s Disease—is unfortunate, but helps make the finished product all the more affecting. “A Chair in the Sky” takes on an elegiac quality it might have otherwise lacked had he not died prior to the album’s June 13, 1979 release date, for instance. “There are things I wish I’d done,” she sings, “Some friends I’m gonna miss/ Beautiful lovers I never got the chance to kiss/ Daydreamin’ drugs the pain of living/ Processions of missing lovers and friends fade in.” The track’s sparse arrangement adds to the poignant quality of the lyrics, the bulk of the instrumentation coming in the form of Jaco Pastorius’ burbling bass lines, Wayne Shorter’s plaintive soprano sax work and Herbie Hancock’s contemplative electric piano lines.
Throughout Mingus, Pastorius’ fretless bass work again proves a fine foil to Mitchell’s atypical open tunings and unique phrasing, a secondary voice that plays off of her in a manner equally as idiosyncratic. His slinky lines on “God Must Be a Boogie Man” wend their way in and out of Mitchell’s vocals, occasionally doubling the vocal melody and acting as a percussive counterpoint to Mitchell’s clattering guitar work. The choice to use Pastorius, then one of the hottest bass players on the modern jazz scene, was certainly not a coincidence given Mingus’ own level of influence on the instrument.
Following in Mingus’ creative footsteps, Pastorius also contributes a number of stunning horn arrangements, most notably on “The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines.” The most overtly jazz track on the album, it serves as a fine showcase for Mitchell’s voice as it rises and falls with an unmatched freneticism and joyous abandon underscored by Pastorius’ stuttering funk and Shorter’s mournful soprano saxophone. It’s a rare celebratory moment as well as a straightforward jazz-pop track on an otherwise low-key release built around more avant garde song structures.
Similarly, “Sweet Sucker Dance” plays fairly straightforwardly, yet serves as an ideal vehicle for Mitchell’s startlingly refined jazz vocal phrasing. One can only imagine how the Great American Songbook might have fared in her more than capable hands, but “Sweet Sucker Dance” offers a tantalizing glimpse of what a full-on jazz release from Mitchell might’ve sounded like. Already long established as a peerless vocalist, she takes things to the next level throughout Mingus, her voice equally melodic and abstract, gloriously realized and invigoratingly improvisational.
Given the era during which Mingus was recorded, it’s easy to see why it largely failed to resonate with a wider audience, as the music-consuming public was more preoccupied with stadium rock, disco and the mainstreaming of punk. Listening back nearly 40 years later, Mingus is a challenging, musically adventurous work that lovingly pays tribute to its namesake both in terms of pushing the creative envelope and not adhering to prevailing commercial trends in favor of artistic satisfaction. Certainly not for everyone and by no means the best place to start with Mitchell (or Mingus, for that matter), Mingus is nevertheless an unjustly maligned entry into one of the most eccentric catalogs of modern pop music.