Since her emergence on the Parisian music scene in the late 1990s, French/Beninoise singer Mina Agossi has polarised opinion sharply. Her style, a startling one-off which combines the caned and the languid with the intensely dramatic, infuriates as many people as it excites. Agossi is to jazz singing something of what Diamanda Galas is to torch songs... you're either going to love her or hate her, and she'll scare the shit out of you either way.
Well You Needn't isn't going to build any bridges between the two camps. It's theatrical, three-dimensional and defiantly outre. On most tracks Agossi is accompanied only by Alex Hiele and Ichiro Onoe's hard-driving young bass and drum team, whose intelligent and cliche-free grooves, heavy on the ostinatos and offbeats, are perfectly locked onto her flight path. New York trumpeter Rob Henke guests on three tracks, stabbing, leaping and smearing with feral enthusiasm, and Burkina Faso-born Bachir Sanogo plays the West African kamale n'goni harp, gorgeously, on the nearest thing to a conventional ballad, "May I Sit At Your Table?", one of five Agossi originals (she co-wrote two others with Hiele).
The album kicks off with an appropriately langorous, small hours reading of "Why Don't You Do Right?" First popularised in a sanitised version by Peggy Lee, this classic of alternative history was originally recorded in 1936 as "The Weed Smoker's Dream (Why Don't You Do Right?)" by Ham Fat Ham & The Harlem Hamfats, whose guitarist/mandolinist, Joe McCoy, wrote it. (It's important to get these provenances right, lest the rebel geniuses of the past get written out of history.) You can hear the original on Jass Records' Reefer Songs compilationand judging by her delivery, Agossi has spun the disc at least once.
There are other great tracks, including Agossi's reinterpretation of Monk's title tune, which she turns into something wilfully and entirely her own, which is not easy with a composer as uber-distinctive as Monk. (Mike Ferro's lyric is a classic of the savage put-down genre: "You're taking off weight / Well you needn't / You're dressing with class / Well you needn't / You're looking just great / Well you needn't / It's over now, over now," etc.). Another stand out is Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile," which Agossi reads relatively straight (that is, bent). "Au Bois De Boulogne" is one of a few tracks on which Agossi chooses to stay within the parametres of an established tradition, in this case chanson. Another is her Bessie Smith inspired "Laundry Man Blues."
Well You Needn't isn't a perfectly realised albumalthough one of those seems likely to come along soon enoughbut it's a refreshing and infectious one. Agossi's music would be more rounded if she was prepared to step away from the mic just a bit more often and give instrumental textures more space and a chance to provide some sonic light and shade. Maybe next time. Meanwhile, the lady is burning bright.
Why Don't You Do Right?; Don't Look At Me; Well You Needn't (It's Over Now); Drive; May I Sit At Your Table?; Father's Talk; Ghost Of Yesterday; You; Voodoo Chile; Rose Petals; After You've Gone; Laundry Man Blues; Au Bois De Boulogne.
Mina Agossi: vocals, guimbarde, guiro; Alex Hiele: double bass; Ichiro Onoe: drums; Bachir Sanogo: percussion, kamale n'goni; Rob Henke: trumpet (1,7,12).
In addition to writing and editing for All About Jazz, Chris is editor of the British style/culture/history magazine Jocks&Nerds and consultant Afrobeat historian for Google Arts & Culture and Partisan/Knitting Factory Records.