Led by Peter Edwards, the New Civilisation Orchestra took on the music from Joni Mitchell’s classic ‘Hejira’ LP and the singer-songwriter’s collaboration with master bassist and composer Charles Mingus.
Jihad Imroel-Quays Darwish & ESKA
It was hard to say whether the audience at the Brighton Dome were Joni Mitchell fans or Mingus fans or both. Basically, this was a gathering of people who had clearly grown up the the music of both and there was a genuine sense of anticipation in the hall.
It’s only a few months ago that I penned a piece on the NCO and their excellent interpretation of Duke Ellington’s ‘The Queen’s Suite’ so it feels a little bit weird to be here again so quickly. That said, I was intrigued that the NCO had opted to take on ‘Hejira’ and ‘Mingus’ as a source of inspiration for their nineteen-piece ensemble. It seems that that great minds think alike. Shortly after the Chaser Productions’ re-envisioning of John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’ I got together with my good friend Colm Carty to produce a similar event based on Joni’s ‘Hejira’. Sadly, it was not the right moment and it never came to pass so I was definitely curious to see where the NCO would take it.
On the the night, I have to say that combining compositions from ‘Mingus’ and ‘Hejira’ was inspired. They kicked off with an instrumental version of ‘Chair In The Sky’ paving the way for the ensemble to be joined by lead vocalist ESKA for the instantly recognisable ‘Coyote’. The wonderfully titled, Mingus composition, ‘Dry Cleaner From Des Moines’ followed. The original recording featured Jaco Pastorious and showcased Joni’s dazzling ability to write and sing within a big band, jazz arrangement. Eska rose majestically to the challenge.
Joni Mitchell & Charles Mingus
An instrumental rendition of ‘Blue Motel Room’ allowed the NCO to flex. Alongside the solid rhythm section – Eddie Hick on the drums – the ensemble boasted a string section and a five-piece horn section that included Denys Baptist on tenor and Rosie Turton on Trombone. Sarah Tandy featured on piano while the elegant conduction of Peter Edwards allowed to the music to rise and fall. As the ensemble delivered three more songs from ‘Hejira’ you could feel Eska relaxing into the nuances of Joni’s distinctive delivery ably supported by the three backing vocalists.
‘Pork Pie Hat’ is a Mingus classic and Joni’s lyric’s are rooted in the harsh realities of the jazz life and the darker times that Mingus illuminated in his book, ‘Beneath The Underdog’. There was tension in the NCO’s delivery. It’s a serious song. The bluesy ‘A Strange Boy’ was followed by the ‘Musings On Haitian Fight Song’ – a minor departure that dipped into a muscular bass and trombone led Mingus gem from the late 50’s. ‘The Wolf That Live On Lindsey’ remains a compelling, visual song that builds in intensity and was the perfect segue for the final song of the night – ‘Black Crow’.
The polite but enthusiastic audience deserved an encore and an uplifting ‘God Must Be A Boogie Man’ was the perfect end to the NCO’s ambitious and deftly crafted set. It’s a venture that’s had me revisiting both albums and also had me seriously reflecting on how we would have approached this music had our own re-imagining come to fruition. Definitely a challenge.