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Intriguing vocalist-composer Mina Agossi's style isn't quite what readily comes to mind when you think of jazz balladeers. Hers is a distinctly reflective voice, a sensibility intrinsically her own. You can, of course, hear hints of the masters in her tonality and phrasing. Think, for instance, Sarah Vaughan. Her material is rich and varied from standards ("I Won't Dance," "When the Saints Go Marching In") to pop ("And I Love Her") to rock ("Spanish Castle Magic," "Voodoo Chile") to, of course, originals ("May I Sit At Your Table," "Lost In The City").
Agossi gets to the U.S. about every few years and this fall will make only three stops, the Dakota in downtown Minneapolis being one, on December 2. The mini-tour is to promote her ninth album, Just Like A Lady (Naive Records). Agossi's quite fond of the Twin Cities, reflecting, "Minneapolis is one of my favorites. It's the third time I come and love this avant garde mentality that you have. You are people of expression."
For the appearance Agossi will have as her special guests poet Chris Shillock and cellist Daniel Furuta. Shillock said of her artistry, "She uses a lot of different tones. The emotions she conveys, she conveys passion, intelligence, She goes inside the music and changes it. She makes you listen."
Mina Agossi is French on her mom's side and African on her dad's. Calling from Paris a couple weeks before the Dakota show, she actually sounded more Scandanavian than anything else. She has a very agreeable personality: part cosmopolitan lady, part effervescent little girl. It made for an enjoyable interview.
Is there a significant difference in playing for U.S. audiences as opposed to at home in Europe?
No. I would not say that. People are willing to try and enjoy a show. We artists do our best to do something that is going to make [audience members] forget the day. We have a responsibility. When you give this love on the stage, you make people happy. They don't go back home the same way they arrived. It's everywhere the same. It can be in Africa, it can be in the States, Russia, South America. It's always the same.
Jimi Hendrix is not a usual choice for a jazz artists to cover. You've done it several times.
Jimi, for me, was above being a genius. Also a wonderful singer. I really love his voice. You can recognize [it] immediately if you see what I mean. He hated his voice, but he didn't know who could sing what he was trying to explain in the music. Nobody really talks about his beautiful voice. I considered him to be a wonderful singer [and] a guitar hero; also, he has this jazz mentality. Actually he was supposed to do a recording with Miles [Davis] had he not passed away. Also something with Gil Evans. He was really attracted by jazz and blues of course. He was improvising in such a way you really can here the jazz background through his pop music of the 70s. And I love that. He was a real composer. He wrote amazing songs. I like to give him a tribute on each one of my CDs. You'll always find one song of Jimi's. You always have something in your heart. Some people you love more than others, in my case Jimi. His music is ageless.
At the Dakota, Chris Shillock will be sitting in. What prompted this.
He's a wonderful poet. I love Invisible Jazz. He has a very inquisitive eye on society and he really knows how to express the sufferance of human beings. He has a wonderful way to put beautiful work.
Over all your albums—a considerable number—is it a challenge to keep the music fresh for yourself?
It's the challenge I have my entire life. Each CD is a great challenge, but I've never tried to please anybody. What I feel I have to do. I've been working on the trio, bass, drums and vocals for something like 11 years. This year, for the first time, I decided to move on and [add] keyboards and guitar, which is a big change. I had to go as far as possible on the trio formula.
What do you draw on to inspire your creativity?
Everything. I always do, for instance, a few pop music songs. I do maybe three or four originals and the rest are standards that I like to visit with my own style. I hear a standard and don't know what direction to take so I think about it. It can take a year, it can take two, three. For instance on my last album, "Waters of March" took five or six years before I could know which way I would, how I would sing it, you know? Something like that. Other songs I hear them and immediately know how I want to sing them. It's different every time. I never know what's going to happen. But I get inspiration very often at night.
What has been one of your more memorable gigs that really stand out for you?
There were a bunch of them. The one in Vienne, a small town in France, at the Jazz Festival, in front of 7,000 people. I loved that show very much. I'll never forget my first show at the Blue Note, of course, in New York. And I will never forget my shows in prison, too. Playing for people who will never get out of jail. Big, heavy sentences. They were absolutely amazing. Very polite. They have one show per year, sometimes one show every two years, and they are so willing to listen to you. They know they will never get out. And when you come to them and you give them the energy, the respect, the passion, you find and you see the humanity in them. It's beautiful.
What's next in your career?
I go to Spain for a seven-day tour, then I came back and continue. Then, I go to Africa. I have a gig there in Chad. And I go to Estonia, [where] I have a show with a big philharmonic orchestra. It's very close to Finland. I'll go to Scotland and then I go to Japan.