Interpreting the music of Joni Mitchell is so fraught with danger as to bear all of the signs of a fool’s errand – her art does not lend itself to easy emulation, to do it justice requires a Herculean effort – and to my knowledge, there is really only one entity that has ever done so successfully: Mutts of the Planet, the ad-hoc association comprised of songbird Robin Adler and her husband Dave Blackburn along with a revolving cast of top-flight instrumentalists, tailored to fit each unique occasion.
These occasions occur once or twice a year, where the group celebrates a Mitchell album in its entirety – no concessions are given to the relative impossibility of such a task, which often involve months of preparations. So, when I heard that the group would be tackling Ms. Mitchell’s daunting 1979 collaboration with the legendary jazz composer/ bassist (and soon-to-be-departed) Charles Mingus, I experienced dual emotions of skepticism and giddiness.
"Mingus," the album, has the twin distinction of being the most challenging, yet least popular item in the Mitchell catalog (although a quick Wikipedia search revealed that it peaked at #17 on the Billboard charts – making the “unpopular” tag seem a little spurious). Would Adler’s fans (which are legion and rabid) show up for this? They did -- practically filling the large performance space at Dizzy’s in Pacific Beach.
Mitchell’s record was filled with jazz fusion stars, including electric bass icon Jaco Pastorius, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, and drummer Peter Erskine, all from the group Weather Report and superstar Herbie Hancock on piano. When I heard that Adler and Blackburn’s group would consist of Rob Thorsen, Tripp Sprague and Duncan Moore with Joshua White, I couldn’t help but smile. Suddenly the task seemed much less daunting.
To open the night, Thorsen reimagined and reprised the original bass lines for the acoustic instrument, while maintaining the spirit throughout the lopsided groove inherent in “God Must Be A Boogie Man,” while Adler’s cool incantation of lyrics culled from the Mingus autobiography swirled like wafting smoke over White’s ethereal harmonies and Sprague’s sweet and sour soprano.
“Chair in the Sky” was all mystery, as Adler’s pinpoint articulation illustrated the dry irony of a man contemplating death over Thorsen’s moaning whole notes. Sprague and White, both supreme melody-makers, took the tune into a higher dimension with compact essays that combined lyric grace with rhythmic surprise.
The lone tune on "Mingus" that was solely a Mitchell construct, “The Wolf That Lives In Lindsey,” flowed with an incredible narrative arc punctuated by de-tuned guitar slapping, lush harmonies and layered wolf cries and the subtle percolation of Moore’s digitally-simulated congas.
“Sweet Sucker Dance,” grooved on an easy swing template, showcasing Adler’s deadly ease with serpentine pathways and Sprague’s mastery of minimalist gestures – very much in the spirit of Wayne Shorter. Moore led off “Dry Cleaner From Des Moines,” with feather-dusting brushes, laying down an irresistible bed of groove that was a composition in and of itself, and it was amazing to hear Adler motor through the minefield of angular intervals and David Mamet-on-steroids lyrics without a flub. White’s solo was a brilliant funk essay that drenched Newtonian logic with grungy distortion, steering the band into a raw New Orleans aesthetic where Adler scatted and Sprague swooped and soared.
“Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” began as a duet between Adler’s lithe vocals and White’s orchestral piano and concluded with a monstrously inventive saxophone solo from Sprague. “Hat” is one of Mingus’ most evocative tunes, and these guys tore it up. Having completed "Mingus" in its entirety, with everyone on their feet and cheering loudly – the wisdom of having prepared an encore of outside material was self-evident, and the group’s romp through the Caribbean-inspired “Dreamland” was almost enough to quell the crowd’s energy. Almost.
To seal the deal, Mutts of the Planet downsized to its core element: the duo of Adler and Blackburn joining forces on the haunting, world-weary “Both Sides Now,” a masterpiece outlining the nexus of optimism and experience, and the barren divide between the two; illustrating the genius and heart of Joni Mitchell in utterly singular fashion.
Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years.