Nu Civilization Orchestra – ‘Hejira’ & ‘Mingus’ by Joni Mitchell (2022 EFG LJF) – London Jazz News
Nu Civilization Orchestra – Hejira & Mingus by Joni Mitchell
(Queen Elizabeth Hall, November 17. Live review by Alison Bentley)
“An evening of Joni Mingus”, said conductor and musical director Peter Edwards. His slip perfectly described the fusion of music played by this British group of 18 musicians, led by the generous talent of London singer ESKA.
Joni Mitchell wrote the lyrics for Mingus A chair in the sky, on it 1979 Mingus album. It was played here as an instrument with a slow rock feel, Rhiannon Jeffreys baritone carrying the melody in a feeling of wild freedom. Mitchell’s Coyote (from her 1976 Hegira album) brought ESKA on stage, his voice as deep and raspy as the late Mitchell, full of his own energetic blend of jazz, soul and blues. Mitchell’s original guitar chords were spelled out by the horn harmonies. The deep tones of the toms (Eddie Hick) and congas (Tell Morgado) were carried by soft flute and pizzicato strings, and a memorable trombone solo by Rosie Tourton.
Mitchell worked with bassist Jaco Pastorius on both albums, and on The dry Des Moines Cleaner Jihad Darwish played this role brilliantly. ESKA improvised following the chords, bringing the funky electric bass with its hint of chorus. The Gospelly choirs were excellent throughout: Kira Crosby-Irons, Kianja Harvey Elliot, Loucin Moskofian. The band members began to dance in their seats to fabulous horn lines that outlined the space of the arrangement. A pleasantly woody alto solo from Jules Dos Reis and happy piano solo of the pianist Sarah Tandy showed that this cleaner had skill as well as luck.
The title song Hegira featured tremolo strings (Rhiannon Dimond and Valeria Pozzo violins; Miranda Lewis cello and viola by Reis); the two main chords immersed in the acoustic guitar (Georgio Serci) and bass. ESKA’s voice became part of the overall sound, as fragments of the poetic lyrics appeared between the horn lines and a moving trumpet solo from Becca Toft. A certain number of Hegira the songs on the album feel like they’re on the road – like modal jazz, there’s no sense the harmony is pulling you in one direction to resolve the tension. In road shelter ESKA grounded Mitchell’s abstract melody; Denys Baptist the extraordinary tenor solo made the most of the lush textures.
Blues musician Furry Lewis was immortalized in Mitchell’s song Furry sings the blues after visiting his home in Memphis (he was unimpressed):
To car parks and shopping centers
As they tear down old Beale Street
Old Furry sings the blues »
This version had a gusty tenor solo over a rockier groove, a slow beat, and a wonderful free-form ending.
The second half opened with Amelia, where Amelia Earhart’s fatal escape becomes a metaphor for Mitchell’s relationship. The sweet flute flew on the strings; the rich vocals and backing harmonies merged with them behind Will be by Gibson angular solo alto. Baptiste teased us with his intro of goodbye pork Pie hat, gradually revealing more melody until ESKA’s melodious tones take over. In the strange bells and whistles of strange boy she added vocal effects with her magic box, then paused while the band played Mingus’ Haitian fight song. The double slap bass halted until the swing picked up speed imperceptibly, sharp riffs battling against each other.
In The wolf who lives in Lindsey ESKA showed off just how good she is at performing the lyrics, amid atmospheric percussion, wolf howls and the hum of guitar strings released on the fretboard. Black Crow had an inspiring Stax soul feel with funky horns and vocals using Mitchell’s abstract phrases as if pulled from the blues, with ESKA even changing the pitch of his own vocals. Edwards led the audience in singing the encore responses to: “God Must Be a Boogie Man” with the slinky bass.
They were superb arrangements and performances that brought out something new in the songs – and the audience responded with ecstatic applause.