To borrow a line from Cole Porter, is it an earthquake or simply a shock? With Mina Agossi it’s difficult to tell. Devotees of the French-Beninese vocalist’s Patty Waters-esque wailing worship at her deconstructionist throne. Those who prefer their jazz vocals straight up are often gobsmacked by her on-the-rocks adventurism. Love her or hate her, there’s no arguing her outré gumption. The ledge has yet to be built that’s too high or too slippery for her to perch upon, or crash-land from.
Agossi wades in with unexpected restraint, transforming Billy Idol’s ethereal “Eyes Without a Face” into a bracingly sensual excursion, then slowing to a crawl for her own onomatopoeic “The Crying Girl.” But those tracks are merely warm-ups for the trademark ingenuity that follows, including a techno-pop-meets-Philly-soul treatment of “Why Did You Do It?”; her twangy, snore-propelled “Sleep Babe Blues”; the loping, multitracked bleat of “Oh You!”; and the sinister, voodoo-infected stalk of the title track.
Legend has it that Agossi got her start while studying in France, when a saxophonist offered her 500 francs to sing. All these years later, she has one of the all-time best tenormen, Archie Shepp, joining her on two tracks. On his “The Stars Are in Your Eyes,” Shepp contributes a raggedy solo and teams with Agossi for an ill-advised vocal duet, his bluesy growl reduced to a croaky shadow of its former magnificence. Far more satisfying are his vibrant contributions to Agossi’s free-for-all transformation of Jimi Hendrix’s “Red House.”