The Joni Mitchell/ Charles Mingus project is always ripe for reevaluation and I’m glad that Caro Manins was the one to explore it again. The connection between Joni and Jazz experimentalism runs deep. Rolling Stone Magazine figured it out early on, describing her as a ‘Jazz savvy experimentalist’. While the connection is obvious in her 1979 ‘Mingus’ album the move toward a freer music and towards harmonic and rhythmic complexity began earlier in the mid 70’s. Initially coming up through the American folk tradition, she gradually embraced a different style. She would later say, “Anyone could have written my earlier music, but Hejira (and later albums) could only have come from me”. From the 70’s on, she utilised her own guitar tunings and often incorporated pedal point, chromaticism, and modality in her compositions. If you look at her later musical collaborations, names like Jaco Pastorius, Herbie Hancock, and Wayne Shorter stand out.To her amazement at the time, a dying Charles Mingus asked Joni to call by. He told her that he had written a number of songs for her. Mingus passed before the completion of her project, but he heard all of the tunes except ‘God must be a Bogey Man’. Her ‘Mingus’ album followed soon after. “It was as if I had been standing by a river – one toe in the water. Charles came along and pushed me in – sink or swim”.
Taking on a project like this is more daunting than it may appear to the casual observer. Understanding that, Caro Manins got busy writing new charts. This is not the sort of gig that you just throw together; this is not a covers band. Joni tunes don’t always behave in expected ways, there is a high degree of abstraction, layers of subtlety, places where the tunes change direction under their own impetus. Doing the Mingus album justice is not for the faint-hearted. The listener tends to associate Joni Mitchel with her biting lyrics and adamantine melodic clarity. In reality, although accessible, her tunes pivot on clever musical devices. The end result here was well worth the effort. A genuine commitment to the project made this happen, imbuing it with the integrity it deserved.The project deserved a good lineup and it got one. Caro Manins, Roger Manins, Jonathan Crayford, Cameron McArthur and Ron Samsom. Crayford was especially interesting on this gig. His abstract explorative adventuring replaced by rich traditional voicings – his solos a history lesson; from locked hands chord-work to impressionistic delicacy. All of the musicians were respectful of Joni’s body of work and they understood that the best way to honour her legacy was by interpreting her work honestly and imaginatively. Not every tune came from Joni’s ‘Mingus’ album but all followed the Joni/Mingus/Jazz theme.The gig was very well attended (no surprise there) and the audience enthusiastic. This was a CJC (Creative Jazz Club) event and it took place at the Albion Hotel on 29th June 2016. Caro Manins (leader, arranger, vocals), Jonathan Crayford (piano), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Cameron McArthur (Bass), Ron Samsom (drums, percussion).
Caitlin Smith is a vocalist who can quickly put a smile on your face or shamelessly tug at your heart-strings. She always finds a way to connect her audience to the essence of a song; deftly locating that illusive sweet spot. While there is often power in her delivery, there is also remarkable subtlety. You could describe her voice in many ways; pitch perfect, having an almost operatic range, but there is much more to Smith than chops. In the parlance she owns each song she sings and embeds it with a uniqueness. Like a seasoned saxophonist she tells beguiling stories in a distinctive way. There is a well-worn cliché that vocalists hog the limelight and in truth many go through their careers with barely a reference to the musicians that they work with. Caitlin Smith is the opposite. You are left in no doubt that her gigs are a shared project as she interacts with band and audience, picking up on every nuance from either. She works with a band as a vocalist should and she is comfortable giving them space to solo. There is a generosity of spirit about her persona and this manifests in the music. I have also witnessed her solid support for emerging artists. The ultimate litmus test for me, is that gifted improvising musicians enjoy playing in Caitlin Smith lineups. While Smith is widely acknowledged as a gifted singer-songwriter, it is her Jazz repertoire that is turning heads of late. Her performance with the AJO at the Tauranga Jazz festival won her many new fans. She is a wonderful interpreter of Jazz standards and this aspect of her repertoire deserves critical attention. Her vocal gifts and incredible musicality thrive with this space; of particular note is the delightful way she plays with lyrics. Smith is a natural performer and there is something wonderfully theatrical and engaging about her stage presence. This gives her gigs an added spark of life. On Wednesday she included some of her own compositions like the beautiful ‘In between’, but the audience was particularly wowed by her take on jazz standards such as Ellington’s ‘I like the sunshine’. I have heard her sing Ellington and Strayhorn at other gigs and I am always impressed by the way she freshens these standards up.
Her innate ability to carry off the more difficult of the Ellington/Strayhorn song-book tunes is beyond question. ‘Lush life’ in particular requires real vocal skills to pull it off well and her interpretation is flawless. This affinity cries out for her to record the material. It would be great to see an Ellington album someday; accompanied by the Kevin Field Trio, alternating with the AJO. Another song from a different genre was ‘River’ (Joni Mitchell). This classic Mitchell song was recently reinterpreted by Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. As Smith delivered her version she phrased it in such a way that I could hear those elided Shorter fills in my head. Her delivery was crystalline and it brought her two worlds together perfectly.
Who: Caitlin Smith (vocals, arrangements), Kevin Field (piano), Oli Holland (bass), Ron Samsom (drums) (acknowledgement to Dennis Thorpe for the River video)
Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, 3rd December 2014