tue 18/06/2024

Nu Civilisation Orchestra & ESKA: 'Hejira' and 'Mingus', Poole Lighthouse review - redistributing the future | reviews, news & interviews

Nu Civilisation Orchestra & ESKA: 'Hejira' and 'Mingus', Poole Lighthouse review - redistributing the future

Nu Civilisation Orchestra & ESKA: 'Hejira' and 'Mingus', Poole Lighthouse review - redistributing the future

Joni Mitchell re-interpreted - can a 19-piece band rise to some of the most challenging material of the 20th century?

Barely room to breathe between stunning musical moments

I had high hopes for this show. After all, Eska Mtungwazi is pretty much the only singer on earth I’d go out of my way to hear sing Joni Mitchell songs.

Not only does she have the necessary vocal range and control, but her own sole solo album sits exactly in the right intersection of folk, jazz and experimental songwriting to suggest she’s got the stylistic fluidity to carry it off. And she’s an amazing performer. She may have only made that one album in 2015, but her work with everyone from Grace Jones and UNKLE to Tony Allen and Matthew Herbert over many years has demonstrated that she’s one of the most consistently potent voices in the UK.

Nonetheless, there was some trepidation. The extensive history of bad jazz versions of "Both Sides Now" and "Case of You" leave the gag reflex very oversensitised when it comes to this kind of endeavour. And this show focuses entirely on material from Mitchell’s most esoteric period – the Hejira and Mingus albums. On the one hand, they’re her most jazz records, so should lend themselves to interesting interpretation – but on the other they’re her most complex and tangled writing, which could all too easily invite over-indulgent formlessness.

There weren’t any instant answers as to which way it would go. The show eased in with a rather reserved intro spiel from musical director Peter Edwards, then the Nu Civilisation Orchestra delivering an elegant instrumental take on “Chair in the Sky”, then Eska joining them for “Coyote”. So far, so good, but it was all played pretty straight: the intro felt like a slickly-delivered overture, and “Coyote” was more or less a straight cover. Eska and the NCOIt was peculiar: perhaps thanks to the footage of her performing it onstage and off in The Last Waltz, “Coyote” has always felt tied to Mitchell’s presence, and to a certain “Seventies-ness”. So there was a bit of a disconnect between a Black woman fronting a modern British jazz ensemble, and Mitchell’s of-its-time, autobiographical storytelling. Or there was at first, anyway. Both Eska and the orchestra warmed up as they went, and then just at the end there was a moment

As Eska sung of “this flame you put here in this Eskimo” there was a distinct glint in her eye: the clearest possible acknowledgement that she was fully appraised of all the layers of meaning and irony in taking on the persona of an aloof Norwegian-Canadian who herself had shamelessly appropriated jazz and elements of Black American identity as part of the her eternal flight from protestant prairie conservatism. And she was having a lot of fun with it. 

From that moment in there was no question that this was not a straight covers set, and there was barely room to breathe between stunning musical moments. Eska’s scatting locked in with inhuman precision to bass and bongoes on “The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines”. Her facial expressions alone giving new life to the poetry of “Hejira” – “Each so deep and superficial / Between the forceps and the stone”. The total funk in interjections of “oh yeah” and “ahahaha” in “Furry Sings the Blues.”  

And not one second of the arrangements or playing was wasted either. The way “Refuge” dropped right down to just the string section then reforms piece by piece. Giorgio Serci’s guitar finding the right tone for everything from liquid balladry to abstract skronk to from-the-heart country twang on a devastating “Amelia”. Jihad Imroel-Quays Darwish bravely taking the Jaco Pastorius role on bass, without simply imitating Jaco. Eska herself casually controlling astounding electronic processing on her own voice, playing tricks where you’d start to wonder what is digital and what is her own vocal control.  

The apocalyptic dreams of “The Wolf That Lives in Lindsey” rendered extra hallucinatory by Tello Morgado’s stroked and shaken percussion that seemed freeform but again proved to be locked in with Eska’s every whisper and inhalation. And on it went, through an effortlessly funked-up finale of “Black Crow” and encore of “God Must be a Boogie Man” with Edwards – by this time having revealed his reserve as hiding a potent dry wit – drawing the audience into the ritual. And there was so much more besides. Not one of the 19 people on stage failed to make vital contributions, not one note was wasted, it was extraordinary. 

The science fiction writer William Gibson famously remarked that “the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed”. And some music demonstrates that principle as powerfully as anything. Charles Mingus’s music even from the 1950s contains such concentrated doses of the future it can still sound like alien technology today – and Mitchell in the 1970s managed to plug into his wellspring of inspiration and again tune even further into the future. And Eska – dressed like a sci-fi priestess in a different black and reflective couture outfit for each half of the show – took that baton and ran with it, as did every part of the appropriately named Nu Civilisation Orchestra. Exceeding all hopes, this made Mingus and Mitchell’s visions as vivid as they’ve ever been, and as breathtakingly advanced. An unbelievable experience. If you get the chance to see this, do not miss it.


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