The Mina Agossi “Red Eyes” album review: A story of Albert Ayler, office cubicles & the timelessness of music.


Mina Agossi is a French vocalist who sticks to jazz, but is sufficiently adventurous to travel to other genres for her material and sound.  She has a new album out.  It’s called Red Eyes.  I’d like to review it right now, but first I’ve got to talk about Albert Ayler and office tower cubicles.  If you have a problem with that, you can blame Agossi.  She instigated the whole thing, with the help of Bobby Few.

So, about ten years ago, I’m living in Chicago, working as an accountant for some nameless worldwide corporation in some nameless office tower in the shadow of the Sears Tower.  It was one of those jobs that seemed like a good idea at the time, but after a year in the same drab cubicle doing the same drab work, I was thinking exit strategy.  In the meantime, I began listening to Albert Ayler.  Impulse was re-issuing a bunch of his albums, remastered and newly packaged.  It seemed like a good time to delve into his music.  Besides, I had enough familiarity with his music to know what I was getting into.  I wanted some ferocity, I wanted some noise, and I wanted some of that old blues new soul swing that all the ferocity and noise crested upon.  At a time when my life felt despairingly dull with no change in sight, a music jolt like Ayler sized up as a decent inoculation.

I scooped up several albums.  The Complete Village Vanguard recording was originally my favorite, most likely because I found it the most accessible, so my ear was more receptive to what it was hearing.  But over time, I starting getting all kind of electricity off New Grass.  Another recording that floated my boat was Music Is the Healing Force of the Universe.  Looking back on it, I can’t point to any specific reason why that album grew to be my favorite.  That’s just how music is sometimes; inexplicable connections through notes, provocative reactions in space.

And as most jazz enthusiasts are wont to do, I indulged that quirky habit of looking into the discographies of any album sidemen that were unfamiliar to me.  Well, Music Is the Healing Force of the Universe was my introduction to pianist Bobby Few.  I liked his sound.  I liked the album.  I wanted to learn more about him, hear more of his music.  And upon discovering that obtaining more information and music of Few’s, both, was going to be difficult, well, of course, that only strengthened my resolve to keep searching.  I can’t say I was particularly successful.  I was able to track down a bit more, some online scraps, but not much.  Sometimes these things don’t shake out.  I decided, at the time, to shelve my search for a later date.

And that brings us to Mina Agossi‘s Red Eyes.  There is an album song called “Let It Rain.”  It is a delightful tune, and what convinced me to write something up.  It also struck me as familiar.  It wasn’t until I checked the liner notes that I discovered it was a Bobby Few composition.  Did I initially recognize it as his?  Not sure.  Too many years and too much music ago to be certain of anything.  But it did start me looking for his music again.  Found some cool videos, found a decent fan site, MP3s are increasingly prevalent… better results than ten years ago.  It was also a nice reminder of how much better life is now than back then.  Music as time machine, all over again.  Most of all, though, it was a reminder of the timelessness of music, of its limitless ability to inspire and delight.  As I explore the present music of Agossi, so I also explore the past music of Few and Ayler, all over again.

Now, about that album.

Your album personnel:  Mina Agossi (vocals), Stéphane Guery, Phil Reptil (guitars), Sue Richardson (trumpet), Eric Jacot (bass guitar), Ichiro Onoe (drums), and guest: Archie Shepp (tenor sax, piano, & vocals).

To my mind, a vocalist should strive to achieve (at least) one of three goals:  (1) Highlight the element of the voice that presents it as any other instrument, thus accentuating the vocals as sound over meaning, (2) So inspire the listener as to make them daydream about singing the words themselves, and (3) Create a connection so personal as to make the listener believe the vocalist is singing directly to them.

It’s in this third category that Agossi shines brightly.  Agossi sets the tone with her voice, gives the songs a relaxed feel, casual in such a way that the intimacy of the session is palpable.  Meanwhile, the various guitars glitter like stars, bass and drums twitter like crickets outside the window, and trumpet is a blanket of soft moonlight.  Even contrasts in tension serve primarily to enhance the session’s warmth.

The album opens with the easy stroll of “Eyes Without A Face,” followed by the Agossi original “The Crying Girl,” a lesson in heartbreak.  Despite the emotional swing between the two songs, it’s a distance bridged by Agossi’s even hand, smoothing the edges of the seams, and making the transition seem completely natural.

Jazz legend Archie Shepp guests on a few tracks, with some mixed success.  In the past, his deep gravelly voice, those few times he offered it, could imbue a song with a blues that could be hopeful or wistful, depending on who was doing the listening.  On “The Stars Are In Your Eyes,” his voice sounds brittle and frail.  But when he speaks up on tenor sax, it’s with a voice with plenty of soul and punch, and a nice counterbalance to Agossi’s vocal swerves and quick shifts in speed.

“Sleep Babe Blues” is a nice example of Agossi’s ability to smoulder words out of the air, like contrails to the jet engine heat of guitar.  Guitars appear to be her ideal pairing, bringing out the best in her voice and rhythmic attack.  Guitarists Guery and Reptil are well-matched counterparts.

Shepp steps back in on tenor for a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Red House.”  Agossi has established a pattern of diving into the Hendrix songbook, and it’s a pattern she should continue to develop.  As just mentioned, guitar brings out the best in her voice, and that seems to go for both interplay of the moment, but also in how guitar fits into the stream of the composition.  Once Shepp starts to blow, with Agossi adding vocal accompaniment, the sun comes out and the song shines.  On bass, Eric Jacot rings bright and clear, his notes beating with the heart of the original.

And then Agossi begins her rendition of Bobby Few’s “Let It Rain,” and Agossi’s voice is velvet soft, even when she extends out.  This song is so wondrously open to interpretation, but at its best, it is both happy and melancholy, a lesson on the importance of maintaining a sense of humor when skies are grey, that having the blues need not preclude one from feeling hope and joy.  Agossi’s rendition of this song would give some indication she recognizes this.  It also illustrates the overall success of the album.

Released on the Naive label.

Jazz from France.

Available at Amazon: CD | MP3

Also, here’s a decent fan site created for Bobby Few.

And here’s a video of Few performing “Let It Rain” live…

Bobby Few (piano), Rasul Siddik (trumpet), Harry Swift (bass), and Benjamin Sanz (drums).  Fabienne Audeoud & Renaud Bezy (graphic art) in Paris (Cite Internationale des Arts).