Joni Mitchell Makes Mingus Sing

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Joni Mitchell performs in 1983.

(Photo: Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic)

Did that expand your knowledge, being around them so much?

Not really, not in an academic sense. It gave me the opportunity to play with a band and to discover what that was like. But I still was illiterate in that I not only couldn’t read, but I didn’t know—and don’t to this day—what key I’m playing in, or the names of my chords. I don’t know the numbers, letters or the staff. I approach it very paintingly, metaphorically. So, I rely on someone that I’m playing with, or the players themselves, to sketch out the chart of the changes. I would prefer that we all just jumped on it and really listened.

Miles always gave very little direction, as I understand. It was just “Play it. If you don’t know the chord there, don’t play there,” and that system served him well. It was a natural editing system. It created a lot of space and a lot of tension, because everybody had to be incredibly alert and trust their ears. And I think that’s maybe why I loved that music as much as I did, because it seemed very alert and very sensual and very unwritten.

And you, in turn, trusted your own ears.

I do trust my own ears. Even for things that seem too outside. For instance, sometimes I’m told that So-and-So in the band, if I hadn’t already noticed, was playing outside the chord. I see that there’s a harmonic dissonance created; but I also think that the line that he’s created, the arc of it, bears some relationship to something else that’s being played, therefore it’s valid. So, in my ignorance, there’s definitely a kind of bliss. I don’t have to be concerned with some knowledge that irritates other people.

“Outside” is only a comparative term, anyway.

Outside the harmony ... but still, as a painter, if the actual contour of the phrase is, like I say, related to an existing contour that someone is playing, then it has validity. Like, if you look at a painting, there seem to be some brush strokes that seem to be veering off or the color may be clashing, but something in the shape or form of it relates to something that exists; therefore it’s beautiful.

I see music very graphically in my head—in my own graph, not in the existing systemized graph—and I, in a way, analyze it or interpret it, or evaluate it in terms of a visual abstraction inside my mind’s eye.

Where did you first hear about Mingus?

I remember some years ago, John Guerin played “[Goodbye] Pork Pie Hat” for me, which is one of the songs that I’ve done on this new album; and it was that same version. But it was premature; he played it for me at a time when it kind of went in one ear and out the other. I probably said “hmm-hmm,” and it wasn’t until I began to learn the piece that I really saw the beauty of it.

Mingus, of course, was a legend. Folk and jazz in the cellars of New York were overlapping, so I’d heard of Mingus by name for some time. As a matter of fact, I’d heard that name as far back as when I was listening to Lambert, Hendricks & Ross in Canada. I was in high school then, but my friends in the university spoke of these legendary people. That was in the early ’60s.

When did you actually get to meet him?

I got word through a friend of a friend that Charles had something in mind for me to do, and this came down the grapevine to me. Apparently, he had tried through normal channels to get hold of me; but there’s a very strong filtering system here and for one reason or another it never reached me. So, it came in this circular way, and I called him up to see what it was about, and at that time he had an idea to make a piece of music based on T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, and he wanted to do it with—this is how he described it—a full orchestra playing one kind of music, and overlaid on that would be bass and guitar playing another kind of music; over that there was to be a reader reading excerpts from Quartet in a very formal literary voice; and interspersed with that he wanted me to distill T.S. Eliot down into street language, and sing it mixed in with the reader.

It was an interesting idea; I like textures. I think of music in a textural collage way myself, so it fascinated me. I bought the book that contained Quartet and read it; and I felt it was like turning a symphony into a tune. I could see the essence of what he was saying, but his expansion was like expanding a theme in the classical symphonic sense, and I just felt I couldn’t do it. So, I called Charles back and told him I couldn’t do it; it seemed kind of like a sacrilege.

So, some time went by and I got another call from him saying that he’d written six songs for me, and he wanted me to sing them and write the words for them. That was April of last year, and I went out to visit him and I liked him immediately; and he was devilishly challenging.

He played me one piece of music—an older piece, I don’t know the title of it—because we figured it was going to take eight songs to make an album: the six new ones and two old ones. So, we began searching through this material, and he said, “This one has five different melodies,” and I said, “And you want me to write five different sets of lyrics at once,” and he said “Yes.”

He put it on and it was the fastest boogieingest thing I’d ever heard, and it was impossible. So, this was like a joke on me. He was testing and teasing me; but it was in good fun. I enjoyed the time I spent with him very much.

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