In 2012, bassist and singer Mimi Jones faced hard times. Gigs dwindled, loved ones died, health problems arose. She was experiencing the very opposite of the optimism that surged through her 2009 debut, A New Day. When financial challenges nearly quashed the completion of her new disc, Balance (Hot Tone), the mounting pressures humbled her into reaching out to friends for assistance. “As a proud black woman, I had to let my ego down and say, ‘I need your help,'” says 41-year-old Jones, a longtime member of saxophonist Tia Fuller’s all-female quartet. “Hope started coming back in. I realized that in order to appreciate the good times, you need the bad times. I found this midpoint where everything kind of settled.”
That midpoint serves as the central theme of Balance. She confronts her existential crisis on “To Be,” singing the lines, “Am I choosing to live/Or am I choosing to die?” through gauzy sonic filters. “I was going through a living hell. I woke up and sang that song right out of my bed. I literally tracked [the vocals] that way and kept it,” Jones recalls. “That’s a documentation of a true moment.”
“Dream” tells of another trying time. Jones dedicates the song to Israeli pianist Shimrit Shoshan, who died suddenly at age 29 of cardiac arrest in 2012. After playing with Shoshan at the 2009 Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Competition, Jones became something of a mentor to her. The gentle ballad features Mala Waldron’s soulful vocals and a pithy upright bass solo that showcases Jones’ warm, full-bodied tone.
Balance exhibits brighter moments too, such as Jones’ sanguine treatment of Roy Ayers’ “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” and her inventive take on the children’s song “Incy Wincy Spider.” The album begins with a dazzling rendition of “Nothing Like You,” an obscure Bob Dorough/Fran Landesman tune featured on Miles Davis’ 1967 LP The Sorcerer. Jones’ rendition acts as a showcase for her arco technique before launching into a delightful mid-tempo trio excursion featuring drummer Justin Faulkner and her piano-playing husband, Luis Perdomo.
Drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, who featured Jones on her The Mosaic Project from 2011, applauds Jones for her “old-school” approach to playing bass. That approach comes from lessons Jones received from Ron Carter, Lisle Atkinson and Milt Hinton while growing up in the Bronx and attending the Manhattan School of Music. “She deeply understands the role of her instrument to support others, and she supplies the necessary bedding for all to dance, fall, walk, stumble or groove on,” Carrington explains.
“I was definitely schooled by some masters, who let me know that tone is the very first thing that people are going to hear,” Jones adds. “If you got a bad tone, people are going to run. The bassist’s tone sets the atmosphere for the band. Rhythmically, I think like a drummer. I like breaking up the time. But I also have to support the musicians, because that’s my job. If I break up the rhythm, it’s to push the music to a new height.”
Jones beguiles as a singer as well, especially on her smoldering makeover of Adele’s “Someone Like You” and her original “Traveler.” She possesses an espresso-flavored alto that recalls Joan Armatrading, and describes her own slightly idiosyncratic singing as “completely organic. I discovered that it was different from the average singer. I actually battled with that for many years,” she says. “I wanted to sing, but I didn’t think of myself as a singer.”
Before Jones launched her solo career, she used her birth name, Miriam Sullivan, and played with such jazz titans as Kenny Barron, Ravi Coltrane and Lionel Hampton. She crafted the alter ego in 2009 as a way of reinventing herself after another challenging period in her life. “I created Mimi so I could become her and let go of all the heavy things associated with being Miriam,” she explains. “You can’t be completely intense all the time with people because sometimes it’s overwhelming for them. [Listeners] need you to help release them from their own intensity.”