Mina Agossi - Jazz is a revolution
Mina Agossi has to pinch herself every so often. The day after we speak, the Paris-based singer who makes her Scottish debut at Glasgow International Jazz Festival this week is off to Benin, where her father’s side of the family lives.
A French television company is making a documentary on Agossi’s life – a circumstance that the singer herself finds "crazy" – and the director wants to film her interacting with her African relatives.
Four albums into her recording career, Agossi knows she should be getting used to the attention she generates. "But I can’t," she says. "I find it strange but it’s also very nice because what I do isn’t what you might call mainstream entertainment."
What Agossi does is sing jazz with just bass and drums accompaniment. There are no chords to guide her; no safety net, as she puts it. "It’s like flying solo, I suppose," she says. "And it’s a challenge without a harmony instrument. But I love the freedom and the danger. I can be myself."
Singing wasn’t even a distant thought as Agossi grew up, travelling constantly with her mother, a biology teacher from Brest, in Brittany, who Agossi says was on a mission to teach poor children her specialist subject. Agossi didn’t meet her father until she was twenty-four.
"So I didn’t get the music thing from him and my mother wasn’t into performance of any kind," she says. "I studied drama at school but I wasn’t very good at it. Then I lived in Spain for a while and became fluent in Spanish, so I thought I’d study languages and maybe work in tourism because I couldn’t live without travelling."
It was while studying Spanish and English at university in 1992 that she walked into a bar where a saxophonist, accompanied by a lot of electronic effects, was playing to … the bar staff.
"There was nobody else there but I sat down and listened and I was nodding my head, so he thought I must be a singer," she laughs at the logic of this deduction. "He asked me if I would sing. I’d never really heard anything like this stuff he was playing before, let alone sung it, but I tried it and he offered me a gig, singing in a restaurant thirty miles away two weeks later."
Feeling reassured by the distance involved and the unlikelihood of being seen by anyone she knew, she accepted, took home the tape he gave her and learned the four songs on it.
"Before I’d even sung a note, I was being given dinner and I’m pinching myself, thinking this is a very nice job," she takes up the story. "And then we did the gig and this guy gave me five hundred francs, which to me was an unbelievable amount of money for singing four songs. So I thought, I think I’ll become a singer and left university."
Although she studied briefly with Sheila Jordan, who specialised in singing with just double bass accompaniment (cue more pinching as a singer who’d hung out with Charlie Parker accepted Agossi’s demo tape), Agossi’s conversion to singing to bass and drums happened by accident.
"My grandmother was very ill and we were still putting a band together and supposed to be rehearsing in the basement but before we started the rehearsal, the bass player and I played a song to my grandmother, and she cried with happiness at the end. I thought, This is powerful enough. Let’s do it like this and add drums."
Response to her approach wasn’t universally favourable to begin with. But she points to two mentors whose faith and support make her feel that she’s doing the right thing. Firstly, Alan Bates, the veteran record producer and the man behind the more easily marketable Jamie Cullum and Clare Teal, signed her to his Candid Records label. And secondly, saxophonist Archie Shepp, who recorded with the iconic John Coltrane as well as following his own revolutionary path, invited Agossi to work with him.
"Whenever I want try something I’m not sure about, I try it out on Archie," she says. "If he likes it, it’ll be okay, because he’s the master and he teaches me so much. It’s not easy being a singer in the jazz world because you have to prove yourself to the musicians and fight for their respect. I found, though, that once I showed that I could compose and that I knew exactly what I wanted from them, they began to like me and actually wanted to work with me."
Her preference is to sing her own songs, which speak out against social ills, although the reputation she’s built so far has been gained largely through her reworkings of songs from the standard jazz repertoire – and adaptations of the occasional Jimi Hendrix song - which she cheerily concedes are "twisted."
"For me, to try and sing a song exactly the way Billie Holiday, say, sang it sixty years ago would be arrogant and pointless," she says. "Because the original version is always going to be a thousand times better. I don’t like to copy because it’s not really very interesting for anyone. I’d rather show people how I feel about a song now, in 2006, because jazz is a revolution. You have to say something of your own."
As for the voice, bass and drums format, at the moment she feels it has limitless possibilities.
"Ask me again in a couple of years," she says. "Because by then I might make a pause and see what’s next. I don’t want to make CD after CD mechanically but right now, when I compose, I hear the double bass – nothing else - and there are so many sounds it can make. It’s exciting singing this way, scary too sometimes, but I love it."
From The Herald, June 28, 2006.