Quirky, daring Mina Agossi turns jazz into adventure

Boston Globe, October 24, 2006

Purists, beware. You might not like Mina Agossi.

The 34-year-old French singer is that beautiful, dangerous thing, a jazz heretic. Based in Paris, and recording on the London label Candid, she has turned heads and befuddled ears in both cities with daring reinventions of supposedly locked-in-time standards and styles.

Agossi is a shouter and a purrer who works with just bass and drums, forgoing the piano. She’s a fan of America who sings in English and hangs out with unorthodox expatriates. She’s lived in France, in several African countries, and once, as a child, in rural Iowa.

Tomorrow, Agossi visits Scullers behind her latest album, “Well You Needn’t.” It’s a portfolio of standards and originals that includes a reworking of Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile” – suitable for a woman with family roots in Benin, voodoo’s cradle, and who gladly haunts the margins of the classically minded European jazz world.

“In my opinion, jazz is a way of life,” Agossi says from her Paris apartment. “Everyone can express himself in a song. I believe in young people who are totally bored with the stars and create their own thing.”

Agossi’s own path into jazz was semi-accidental. Growing up, she says, she had little knowledge of the music. Instead she started off singing in a rock band that was headed nowhere, as the musicians were too busy smoking pot. In fact, her break came on a night when her bandmates failed to show up at a gig.

“We were called onstage, and they weren’t there,” she says. “They were scared, they went somewhere and got high. I had to do something. So I sang a cappella.”

In the audience was a jazz bandleader, Herve Le Lann. To her surprise, he informed her that she was a natural and invited her to come play with him sometime. She landed a steady gig in his New Orleans-style ensemble, learning the roots of the music on the fly.

“I didn’t know what I was doing,” she says. “I was scatting, or something like that.”

But whatever she was doing, her chops developed to the point where, six years ago, she came to the attention of saxophone great Archie Shepp, an icon of the late 1960s avant-garde who spends part of his time in Paris. He became a collaborator and mentor.

One of jazz’s great free thinkers, Shepp encouraged the development of Agossi’s own iconoclastic style. And “Well You Needn’t,” the album title, reaches back to another heretic, Thelonious Monk, who composed the song of that name.

Agossi’s version of the song is as good a sample of her approach as any. As with most of her pieces, she is accompanied by bass and drums in a taut, percussive arrangement. Her lyrics turn the song into a mordant declaration of independence.

“For me, it’s the story of a woman who wants to get rid of a man,” she says. “She kept it so long in her heart, she was going to explode. But if you follow the voice, it’s the melody of the [Monk] song.”

Halfway through, though, something happens. Agossi accelerates into a segment that’s half-rap, half-scat, as the sound recedes as if through some kind of electronic filter. Asked about this effect, she laughs.

“It’s a trick,” she says. “I used the feedback of the monitor to imitate the electric guitar. Nothing is electronic. What you hear on the CD is what you get on the stage.”

The eagerness to dismantle a tune and then reassemble it means Agossi will tackle anything from standards to blues or French chanson, as well as unclassifiable compositions of her own. All share stripped-down arrangements in which rhythm and spacing are paramount.

“I don’t know how to notate music,” Agossi says. “I compose by singing and recording onto a mini disc. I begin with percussion, then I add the bass, and then the lyrics. I can’t hear piano when I compose. I can’t tell you how much I adore the piano. But in my own music, all I can hear is drum and bass.”

It was the quirkiness and daring of Agossi’s sound that caught the attention of Allan Bates, the CEO of jazz label Candid.

“Mina appealed to me straightaway because she’s not just another Great American Songbook singer or soul singer,” Bates says. “Her style is very individual, starting from the fact that she appears only with drums and bass. It gives her a lot of freedom to improvise.”

That free, experimental sensibility carries over into Agossi’s performance style; she has gotten a reputation for its sometimes outre intensity.

“The thing about Mina is she’s an actress,” Bates says. “She’s riveting when you see her.”

Or as a critic on the website All About Jazz put it: “You’re either going to love her or hate her, and she’ll scare the [heck] out of you either way.”

Agossi happily endorses this assessment.

“It’s exactly on the mark,” she says. “You can love the music or hate it.

“Of course, I can be scary. I don’t like to water the music down. I don’t want to portray a world that’s all standard and clean. We’re not robots. Everything isn’t good in the world. But I also don’t want to do the opposite and be hysterical. There are many different moments in my performance. Each song contains numerous landscapes.”

Agossi is an improviser at heart, which lands her foursquare in the jazz tradition.

“I don’t see the use for me to imitate what was done before, as an almost 35-year-old singer,” she says. “I don’t try to imitate Jimi Hendrix or Carmen McRae. I’d rather put on a Carmen McRae CD.

“I have such respect for Monk and other great jazz musicians. If they were still alive, I’d want them to be happy to see that this is their patrimoine – their heritage – in young people’s heads.”

Purists, beware. You just might like her.