Mingus

Joni Mitchell

Asylum, 1979

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 06/13/2017

By 1979, what more did Joni Mitchell have to prove? She had been a folk legend with her early albums, and had also been a pop superstar with songs like “Big Yellow Taxi” and “Help Me”. If anything, these two career landmarks gave Mitchell the freedom to follow wherever her Muse directed her… and in 1979, it led her to legendary jazz bassist Charles Mingus.

In the final stages of ALS, Mingus was able only to contribute music and a few spoken-word passages – Mitchell even notes in her lyrics to his song “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” that Mingus had gone to Mexico to search out healers (and where he would die in 1979, during production of this album), but the album that bears his last name is not only a wonderful tribute to his musical legacy, but is also a triumph for Mitchell. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Since Mingus was no longer able to play, who better to take on the bass guitarist role than another legendary master of the instrument, Jaco Pastorius? Marking the third album of Mitchell's that he had performed on, he is joined by other jazz legends like Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, all of whom add their own special touches to the music that makes this album a true experience to listen to.

Mitchell's lyrics and vocals are just a delicious icing on the musical cake, but where she succeeds on most of the music (including the four songs with music written by Mingus) is that she never tries to transcend the initial song. She doesn't try to make it hers; she simply attempts to add an additional layer to further place a spotlight on the music. And, in this regard, she succeeds.

Only two tracks on Mingus feature words and music from Mitchell; of these, “God Must Be A Boogie Man” is the stellar of the two. With a groove that does feel like it could have come from Mingus's pen and bass some time ago, Mitchell quickly sets the tone for this disc and lets the listener know it's going to be an enjoyable ride. The latter track, “The Wolf That Lives In Lindsey,” is a bit of a letdown – not a bad track, mind you, but when compared to the excellence on the bulk of this disc, it just doesn't hold its weight as well.

If anything, I wish that Mingus had been longer – there really are only six actual songs among the 11 tracks on the disc. Mitchell and crew were doing so well capturing the feelings and emotions of a smoky jazz club at 1:30 in the morning, when patrons and musicians were tired and one's true feelings, not hampered by self-censorship, came through in the words that were sung and the notes that were played. This is the greatest success of Mingus, and makes this disc – to me, at least – one of the unheralded gems in not only Mitchell's discography, but in the music world in general.

Rating: B+

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