Nu Civilisation Orchestra – Joni Mitchell’s Hejira & Mingus
(Queen Elizabeth Hall, 17 November. Live review by Alison Bentley)
“An evening of Joni Mingus,” said conductor and musical director Peter Edwards. His slip of the tongue perfectly described the fusion of music played by this 18-piece UK band, fronted by the generous talent of London-based vocalist ESKA.
Joni Mitchell wrote lyrics for Mingus’ A Chair in the Sky, on her 1979 Mingus album. It was played here as an instrumental with a slow rocking feel, Aleksandra Topczewska’s baritone carrying the tune into a sense of wild freedom. Mitchell’s Coyote (from her 1976 Hejira album) brought ESKA onstage, her voice as deep and husky as late Mitchell, full of her own energised mixture of jazz, soul and blues. Mitchell’s original guitar chords were spelt out by the horn harmonies. The deep tones of the toms (Eddie Hick) and congas (Tello Morgado) were lifted by the sweet flute and pizzicato strings, and a memorable trombone solo from Rosie Turton.
Mitchell worked with bassist Jaco Pastorius on both albums, and on The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines Jihad Darwish played that role brilliantly. ESKA improvised following the chords, bringing in the funky electric bass with its hint of chorus. Gospelly backing vocals were excellent throughout: Cara Crosby-Irons, Kianja Harvey Elliot, Loucin Moskofian. Band members were starting to dance in their seats to fabulous horn lines that emphasised the spaciousness of the arrangement. A pleasantly woody viola solo from Jules Dos Reis and joyful piano solo from pianist Sarah Tandy showed this dry cleaner had skill as well as luck.
The title track Hejira featured tremolo strings (Rhiannon Dimond and Valeria Pozzo violins; Miranda Lewis cello plus Reis’ viola); the two main chords dipped into acoustic guitar (Georgio Serci) and bass. ESKA’s vocal integrated into the whole sound, as fragments of the poetic lyrics peered out between the horn lines and a stirring trumpet solo from Becca Toft. A number of the Hejira album songs have the feel of the open road- like modal jazz, there’s no sense that the harmony is pulling you in one direction to resolve tension. In Refuge of the Road ESKA earthed Mitchell’s abstract melody; Denys Baptiste’s extraordinary tenor solo made the most of the luxuriant textures.
Blues musician Furry Lewis was immortalised in Mitchell’s song Furry Sings the Blues after she visited his home in Memphis (he wasn’t impressed):
To parking lots and shopping malls
As they tear down old Beale Street
Old Furry sings the blues”
This version had a squally tenor solo over a rockier groove, slow back beat and a wonderful free form ending.
The second half opened with Amelia, where Amelia Earhart’s fatal flight becomes a metaphor for Mitchell’s relationship. The sweet flute flew over the strings; the rich vocals and backing harmonies melded with them behind Will Gibson’s angular alto solo. Baptiste teased us with his intro to Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, gradually revealing more of the melody till ESKA’s mellifluous tones took over. In the eerie bells and whistles of Strange Boy she added vocal effects with her magic box, then took a break while the band played Mingus’ Haitian Fight Song. Slap bass double stopped till the swing sped up imperceptibly, spiky riffs wrestling with each other.
In The Wolf That Lives in Lindsey ESKA showed how good she is at interpreting lyrics, amid atmospheric percussion, wolf howls and the buzz of slackened guitar strings on the fretboard. Black Crow had an inspiring Stax soul feel with funky horns, and vocals using Mitchell’s abstract phrases as if they were culled from the blues, ESKA even changing the pitch of her own voice. Edwards conducted the audience singing the encore’s responses to: “God Must be a Boogie Man” with the slinky bass.
These were superb arrangements and performances that brought out something new in the songs- and the audience responded with ecstatic applause.
Categories: Live review
I’m gutted that I couldn’t make this incredible performance. ‘Brilliant playing from Jihad’ – I would have loved to meet up with you for a chat, Jihad, after so long.
Good luck and all the best,
Fraser (guitar, Plymouth)