In 1976, bassist Charles Mingus
was suffering from a degenerative condition which had left him part-paralysed and unable to play or compose in a conventional manner. He still had a mind full of musical ideas so needed a collaborator. He had become aware of Joni Mitchell
and thought she might be the right choice. For her part, Mitchell had gradually been escaping the confines of her folky image, flirting with jazz structures in her albums and saw an opportunity to work with one of her musical heroes. Mingus sang his melodies into a cassette recorder, Mitchell added lyrics and the arrangements developed over several recording sessions, eventually resulting in the album Mingus
(Asylum Records) released in 1979 just after Mingus' death.
The album, consisting of three songs initiated by Mingus, two Mitchell compositions, a Mingus standard and a number of short interludes, became her worst-selling album of the 1970s. It received little radio play and a generally cold reception. Today, the album is seen as a key title in Mitchell's catalogue and a touchstone and inspiration for many jazz musicians. One of those is English singer Imogen Ryall
, whose album, Imogen Ryall Sings the Charles Mingus / Joni Mitchell Songbook
is a tribute to both musicians and the album they created.
Ryall, with three previous albums to her name, is a frequent performer at British jazz clubs and festivals and has worked with Ingrid Laubrock
, Jim Mullen
and Bobby Wellins
. Her lyrics also appear on two albums by Claire Martin
OBE. Ryall and her band have thoroughly submerged themselves in the world of Mingus and his aural environment. That band consists of saxophonist Julian Nicholas
, bassist Nigel Thomas, pianist David Beebee
and percussionist Eric Ford
. Considering Mitchell had the likes of Jaco Pastorius
, Wayne Shorter
and Herbie Hancock
to call on, this album is an ambitious undertaking.
Three songs from Mingus' original tapes made it onto the original album. Ryall is superb in conveying the bittersweet regret of "A Chair in The Sky," her companions offering consummate support. "Sweet Sucker Dance" is transformed into a lightly-swinging smooth ballad with Nicholas' sax prominent over Thomas and Ford's well-matched rhythms. Mitchell's delivery on "The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines" was a masterclass in fast whip-smart vocals. Ryall brings her own precision with a scat-style vocal as Ford and Beebee provide swing.
The Mitchell-only contributions include "God Must Be a Boogie Man," with lyrics inspired by Mingus' autobiography, Beneath The Underdog
. Here, Nicholas' saxophone swings in and Ryall's warm voice and clear-cut diction carry the narrative before the light funk in the sax and piano solos. "The Wolf That Lives in Lindsey" is a Mitchell-only tune with no Mingus connection. Ryall's version is a stand-out with authoritative vocals and narration, together with excellent background interplay.
There are a number of references in the interludes between tracks to Mingus Ah Um
(Columbia, 1959). In addition, Ryall provides her own sensitive lyrics for Mingus' instrumental ballad, "Self Portrait in Three Colours." The album closes with another track taken from that album, also included on Mitchell's album, "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," Mingus' tribute to the late saxophonist, Lester Young
There is no impersonation here, just a love of the musicians and the songs. Ryall's vocals are never overly showy and always in service to the material. Her empathetic partners are first-rate throughout and, from the sparest of original sonic palettes, arrange the material to suit their strengths. This is an ambitious album which takes plenty of risks. However, it has the power to take one by surprise and is an unexpected triumph.
Boogie Stop Shuffle (interlude); God Must Be a Boogie Man; A Chair in the Sky; Duke's Choice (interlude); The Wolf That Lives in Lindsey; Sweet Sucker Dance; I'se a Muggin' (interlude); Self-Portrait in Three Colors; The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines; Better Git it in Your Soul (interlude); Good-Bye Pork Pie Hat.
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