“I’m a huge fan of Joni’s ‘Mingus’… we really just wanted to celebrate the incredible compositions and lyrics”
Photograph by Lisa Wormsley
In the pop world it’s known as doing cover versions, and in jazz it’s playing standards. To take an iconic album by two giants of their respective genres and to rearrange it for jazz quintet is risky to say the least.
Perhaps someone should have informed vocalist and lyricist Imogen Ryall of this fact, but upon hearing her new album Sings The Charles Mingus/Joni Mitchell Songbook, I’m rather pleased that they didn’t.
Somewhat fearlessly Ryall brought her love of the Mingus album by Joni Mitchell released in 1979, recasting the music for her handpicked band and brings the songs to life for a new audience who might not have been familiar with it, and reminded those of us of a slightly older generation why we loved the original album in the first place.
What is most amazing about Imogen’s recording is that it is not an album of covers or standards but an accomplished and heartfelt tribute to two great musicians and their singular collaboration.
Talking to Imogen about the music, she is modest of her own contribution and what is overriding is her respect for her fellow musicians, and her love of the music that she has taken as her inspiration and recast so brilliantly.
You must be proud, and justifiably so, of your new album Sings The Charles Mingus/Joni MitchellSongbook. Can you tell a little about the album and how the recording came to fruition?
Thank you! Yes, I am immensely proud of it and of how brilliantly Julian, David, Nigel and Eric have played on it. We did a gig last year at Pizza Express, Pheasantry on what would have been Mingus’ 100th Birthday and then another at Watermill Jazz Club where a good friend of Julian’s, Paul Dorham was in attendance and suggested he knew of a record label that might be interested in the project and the rest is history!
The choice of repertoire is interesting with no less than six titles from the original album by Joni and Mingus recorded in part just before the bassist passed away. How did you feel rearranging and singing these songs and presenting them in a new light?
I’m a huge fan of Joni’s ‘Mingus’ and whilst I would never dream of attempting to recreate that iconic album, we really just wanted to celebrate the incredible compositions and lyrics and to perform them as a jazz quintet. Mingus originally wanted an acoustic ensemble to record the music including Phil Woods but Joni in the end obviously plumped for the more electric sound of Herbie, Jaco et al.
Do you remember the first time that heard the Mingus by Joni Mitchell, and what are your recollections?
I do indeed! It was 1986 and I was 19 years old and studying jazz at what was then Salford College of Technology, and I bought the gatefold vinyl album at a record shop in Manchester. I hadn’t been hugely into Joni at that point, I had heard and loved Blue but that was about it. I was completely blown away about everything on that album – her voice, lyrics, the close, musical relationship she had with Wayne Shorter. I also fell in love with Jaco’s playing even more as I was already a fan of Weather Report.
Most of the lyrics on the original album were written by Joni Mitchell, but on two Mingus compositions, ‘Duke’s Choice’ and ‘Self-Portrait In Three Colors’, you have written the lyrics yourself. Can you tell us about the inspiration behind these lyrics?
‘Self Portrait’ was one of the tunes Mingus originally sent to Joni for her to lyricise but instead, it proved to more of an inspiration for ‘God Must Be A Boogie Man’. So, I thought I would try and write some lyrics which I hoped would chime with the three colours theme and what it is to be human. It’s well documented that Mingus was a huge admirer of Duke Ellington, and you can really hear it in ‘Duke’s Choice’ which I thought would work well as a sung ballad. The version I heard was from The Complete Town Hall Concert album and I felt it had a sleepy, dreamlike quality which led to the first line, “Waking is deceiving; must’ve been dreaming…”
One of the factors that bring the music to life in such a vibrant way is the contribution of all the musicians on the session. I know that your associations with Julian Nicholas and David Beebee go back along way, but how did the band get together and have you had much opportunity to play as a group?
We’ve so far played 3 gigs including the launch in August at the Pizza Express, Dean Street and we have some exciting dates planned for next year which include Brighton’s Verdict Jazz Club in February and opening for the Watford Junction Jazz Festival in May. I chose to work with these particular musicians, not just because we have, as you say friendship and working relationships going back two decades and obviously, this does show, particularly when playing live but first and foremost, I love what they’ve each brought to this project and quite honestly, I couldn’t have wished for a better band! Mark Edwards who produced and mixed the album also added another dimension to the tracks, adding Gil Evans-like horn backings which I think further enhanced the emotional dynamic of the material.
It is interesting that the album is released on the Rubicon label that is perhaps associated for its classical catalogue. How did the association with Rubicon come about?
Paul Dorham, as mentioned previously introduced me to Matthew Cosgrove and Cheryl Grant at Rubicon who were looking to incorporate a jazz ‘arm’ to their label, so it really was down to timing and good fortune for me!
Apart from Mingus and Joni, are there any other musicians who have been a particular influence?
Gosh, there really are so many! Norma Winstone, Al Jarreau, Donald Fagen; Flora Purim and Airto Moreira … the list could honestly go on and on..!
In addition to the Mingus/Joni Mitchell Songbook, what other projects are you currently involved with?
I’ve written lyrics to 10 compositions by Czech pianist, Emil Viklicky and our album ‘Songs’ is currently available on vinyl from the Czech Republic but will be released on CD and download in the Spring 2024. Julian Nicholas is featured on that album and is also working on a new album of his own original compositions which is very exciting and in the next couple of weeks, I’ll be performing with the Simon Woolf Quartet, celebrating another legendary Bass player and songwriter, Keith ‘Red’ Mitchell.
Click here to read our review of Imogen Ryall Sings The Charlie Mingus/Joni Mitchell Songbook
For more information visit imogenryall.com