Mingus, Joni Mitchell

by Julia Selinger

Fundamental Truths are rarely spilt forth from Instagram. But it’s 2017; the Cubs are World Series champions, Donald Trump is the President of the United States, and the 2nd Avenue subway is open to the public. It’s safe to say that anything we once knew as True has swiftly and resignedly flown the coop. The particular kernel of Truth I have in mind was casually cast into the world via the Instagram story of blogger-cum-mogul and venerable Cool Girl Tavi Gevinson. The scene: a whirring record player in a downtown apartment. The chunky white text read (excuse my paraphrasing, unavoidable given the transience of the medium), “Adulthood is wearing grey turtlenecks and listening to late Joni Mitchell records.”

Aside from acknowledging the universal truth that everyone looks good in a turtleneck, Gevinson clearly (if tongue-in-cheekily) devises a concise thesis about Mitchell’s discography: that her later work is unflinchingly that of a Grown Ass Woman.

This isn’t a dig at Joni’s music pre-1975; the records she released in the first half of that decade are some of the best of the century, with the heartbreaking Blue (1971) nestled among them as an undisputed masterpiece. But there is perhaps no artist whose catalogue can be bisected as clearly and bewitchingly as Mitchell’s. Here is a songwriter whose Before and After—wedged, I would argue, somewhere between Court and Spark (1974), her foray into jazz-pop, and the unapologetically jarring The Hissing Of Summer Lawns (1975)—are diametrically opposed yet equally essential. The former is entrenched in the folk pop idiom, all 20s bliss and heartbreak, unmatched in its deeply personal insistence on “I” as subject. The latter is jazz-inflected, obtuse, and observational. It’s a stylistic departure that boldly rejected her fans’ pleas for another “Big Yellow Taxi” (and one whose appreciation largely depends on how you feel about Jaco Pastorius’ rubbery fretless bass). Crucially, it is, to use a word so often attributed to uncompromising women, difficult.

Mitchell herself is privy to the bifurcated nature of her creative output, telling the L.A. Times in 2010, “my first four albums covered the usual youth problems — looking for love in all the wrong places — while the next five are basically about being in your 30s. Things start losing their profundity; in middle-late age, you enter a tragedian period, realizing that the human animal isn’t changing for the better.”

It might strike listeners as odd that Mitchell sees the focal point of her creative maturation as spanning only her first nine albums. When an anthology was released in 2012, Mitchell’s little-understood, momentum-halting tenth album also made the cut: 1979’s Mingus. Made in collaboration with the titular double bass maestro Charles Mingus, the album is a blip at the end of Mitchell’s near-peerless stretch of records. Although it’s the famed bassist’s final record (the terminally ill Mingus died during recording), Mingus is Mitchell’s least-known and most critically unloved album of the 1970s. But what it lacks in critical acclaim it makes up for in its unyielding chutzpah. Though it’s her least successful record of the decade, Mingus is a bold argument for artists to embrace mutability.

To characterize Mingus as “hated” would overstate its impact. Rather, Mingus is less maligned than it is insouciantly shrugged off. In the litany of reviews and reflections that were published in 2012, Mingus is usually granted a sentence or two among hundreds of words that praise, pick apart, and puzzle over the other nine albums. Aside from a general acknowledgement that Mingus is Mitchell’s first real attempt at a jazz album, it’s often described as forgettable at best and unnecessary at worst. Mick Brown’s review for The Telegraph best sums up the curt dismissal expressed among critics: “Mingus, the last album to be included, would do nothing to bring back the disaffected.”

It’s ironic, then, that Mingus, an album whose legacy was barely afforded more than a few parting words, was also the occasion of Mitchell’s first in-depth interview in more than ten years. In the summer of 1979, Mitchell spoke with a little-known Rolling Stone journalist named Cameron Crowe. The conversation—though it may do little to produce Mingus apologists—is an argument for eccentricity and sophistication over popularity and stability. Furthermore, it bolsters up a central thesis about Joni Mitchell: that while Mingus is a disappointing end to Mitchell’s most fecund period, it is also, in its proximity to death and rejection of creative stagnation, her most Adult statement to date.

It’s rumored that “Paprika Plains”, the 16-minute-long orchestral freak-out and centerpiece of Don Juan,  spurred Charles Mingus to reach out to Mitchell in early 1978. Privately succumbing to ALS out of the public eye, Mingus was already “reclusive with the illness,” as Mitchell put it, upon indicating his interest to work with the similarly eccentric and ambitious songwriter. After Mitchell rejected Mingus’ original request to collaborate on a condensation of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (“I’d rather condense the Bible,” she wryly admitted to him), the pair didn’t speak for a while, the collaboration seemingly over before it began. Then, another phone call. Mingus had written six pieces—his final melodies—for Mitchell to set words to, titled “Joni I-VI.” She spent a year and a half working on the project, with Pastorius, Peter Erskine, Herbie Hancock, and Wayne Shorter as her backing band—not bad company for your first jazz outing. When Mingus passed away in January 1979, Mitchell continued writing and recording until late spring. He would never hear the final product.

In certain regards, Mingus and Mitchell are an odd pair for a collaboration. Mingus was famously ornery and violent-tempered, an explosive yin to Mitchell’s aloof and seemingly impenetrable yang. While Mingus’ infamous temper has been validated and recounted, Mitchell’s persona is more the stuff of myth, which is dispelled in Mitchell’s interview with Crowe. She tells him, in response to a question about preconceptions she’d like to shatter, “I do have this reputation for being a serious person…But this is only one side of the coin, you know.”Throughout the interview Mitchell heartily pokes fun at her supposed dourness. Describing her entrance at a Hollywood club, she remarks, “So the renowned introvert comes in, and I just wanted to dance.” Similarly, it’s easy to listen to Mingus’ music and detect an underlying irreverence and sense of humor. Despite early gigs in the 1940s with vanguards like Louis Armstrong, he often skirted the accepted jazz formula. Indeed, many of his compositions, such as 1956’s “Pithecanthropus Erectus” and 1957’s “Passions Of A Man” aren’t afraid of a few raucous horn squawks and volatile chants.

Upon further consideration, then, it’s not hard to accept the truism “genius loves company,” especially when the geniuses in question share more than a few darkly funny streaks. Though it’s not the album that should define either artists’ legacies, Mingus is a document of lightness and humor amid the specter of death. Moreover, Mingus may be the most honest reflection of Mitchell’s interior persona—one that’s silly, rowdy, and not so serious as we may have imagined.

Part of the album’s lightness—and its most rewarding feature—comes from its intermittent slices of audio vérité, or “raps,” between the inconsistent compositions. “Happy Birthday 1975,” the first of these aural snapshots, is a scene of unbridled joy; an anonymous chorus of “happy birthday” is followed by Mingus and his wife arguing whether the bandleader is turning 53 or 54. “I’s A Muggin’” is a scat interplay between Mingus and Mitchell. “Funeral” is the album’s most direct reference to death, but even it eludes any feelings of dread. With a jazz tune playing in the background, the clip—just over one minute long—features Mingus and company discussing how long he’ll live and what his funeral will be like. “I’m gonna get buried in India,” Mingus intimates, not long before his ashes were scattered in the Ganges. Of course, the audio ends with some gentle ribbing: “Duke lived to be 77 years old, right? I’m gonna cut him!”

On Mingus and elsewhere, the bassist was exceedingly private about the details of his death. As such, it’s easy to imagine that Mingus never really deteriorated; the irascible genius merely hung up his hat one day. On the album, Mingus and Mitchell don’t provide the space to explore such details, resulting in a work in which death remains at the peripheral. “I never really believed completely that he was going to die,” Mitchell admitted to Rolling Stone. “His spirit was so strong.”

By refusing to treat Mingus as a groveling eulogy, Mitchell seized their collaboration as an opportunity for development. Part of what makes Mingus so vital to Mitchell’s artistic maturation is her insistence that musical growth does not necessarily equate to commercial success, nor does it have to. “If I experience any frustration, it’s the frustration of being misunderstood,” Mitchell said in ’79. “But that’s what stardom is – a glamorous misunderstanding. All the way along, I know that some of these projects are eccentric. I know that there are parts that are experimental, and some of them are half-baked. I certainly have been pushing the limits and – even for myself – not all of my experiments are completely successful. But they lay the groundwork for further developments.”

What solidifies Mitchell’s position as a Grown Ass Woman is her understanding that creative stagnation is unfulfilling, no matter how much her refusal to stagnate may upset her fans—or in other words, her ability to not give a fuck. There’s a certain amount of maturity in the belief that perfection isn’t the end-all-be-all, that personal and artistic growth is an enviable enough goal in and of itself. Even if Mingus is a largely imperfect album, there’s solace in accepting it in Mitchell’s own terms. It’s not a failed experiment — just a glamorous misunderstanding.

Julia Selinger is a writer and rapscallion living in Brooklyn. She was first in her class at Princeton, has an I.Q. of one hundred and eighty-seven, and it’s been suggested that Stephen Hawking stole his Brief History of Time from her fourth grade paper. The young genius is on twitter @julialena_.

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