Herbie Hancock - River: The Joni Letters

Herbie Hancock
River: The Joni Letters

(Verve)

Douglas Heselgrave's #7 album for 2007

John Metzger's #13 album for 2007

First Appeared in The Music Box, October 2007, Volume 14, #10

Written by John Metzger

Tue October 9, 2007, 06:00 AM CDT

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As Nonesuchís A Tribute to Joni Mitchell proved, it isnít as easy as it might appear to cover the work of Joni Mitchell. Itís even more difficult to find a new and equally convincing perspective from which to sing her songs. With River: The Joni Letters, however, Herbie Hancock succeeds where many others have failed. It helps, of course, that both he and producer Larry Klein are longtime associates of Mitchell. Hancock performed on Mingus as well as on Both Sides Now, while Klein not only played bass, engineered, and co-produced a number of Mitchellís albums, he also once was married to her. Consequently, they already were well aware of how intricately constructed her compositions are. Yet, the duo still spent hours analyzing her lyrics and music prior to recording River: The Joni Letters. Upon hearing the effort, it is immediately clear that their dedication paid huge dividends.

To put it simply, River: The Joni Letters is a thing of wonder, though much like Mitchellís own endeavors, its complexities have the potential for being elusive and difficult to grasp. Given time, though, the setís subtle details gradually reveal themselves as Hancock fully embraces the beautiful and graceful emotional core that lies at the heart of Mitchellís work. Similarly, the manner in which he makes a pair of tunes by Duke Ellington (Solitude) and Wayne Shorter (Nefertiti) fit so perfectly within the scope of the project is downright masterful. The former track, for example, provides a fitting coda to Tea Leaf Prophecy. At times, Hancockís rendition of Solitude seems to beckon the lead character from the preceding song to embark upon a pilgrimage full of self-discoveries; at other moments, it bears the fruit of her fears, providing the reason that she doesnít leave her husband or her hometown behind. On the other hand, Nefertiti provides a frame of reference for the musical paths that are traversed throughout the effort, drawing parallels and connections between Mitchellís, Hancockís, and Shorterís recordings.

Even so, there is one blemish that nags at River: The Joni Letters. This stems from Hancockís decision to work with a team of guest vocalists that includes Norah Jones, Corinne Bailey Rae, Tina Turner, Leonard Cohen, and Luciana Souza. To their credit, the singers hold their own against the daunting legacy and stunning vocal dexterity of Mitchell. Souza, in particular, sounds like her doppleganger on Amelia, while Turnerís gravelly voice adds a gritty undercurrent to Edith and the Kingpin. Save for Cohen, who transforms The Jungle Line into an eerie, spoken-word recital, however, they all merely service the songs in an admirable but incomplete way. Their deficiencies become apparent when Mitchell herself makes an appearance to re-imagine Tea Leaf Prophecy. Even in her diminished capacity ó she has lost her range as well as the smoothness of her delivery ó she still stakes her claim to the song, filling it with a presence with which the likes of Jones, Rae, and Souza canít compete. Fortunately, rather than being fatal to the project, the flaw merely dampens its magnificence.

The real magic on River: The Joni Letters happens, then, within the music itself, and in creating the outing, Hancock surrounded himself with a stellar cast of musicians: Renowned saxophonist Wayne Shorter, of course, not only had worked with Hancock in Miles Davisí second great quintet, but he also lent his talent to Mitchellís Mingus. Bass player Dave Holland is an alumnus of Davisí fusion projects, having joined his band on the day before Hancock departed. Drummer Vinnie Colaiuta has worked with Mitchell, while guitarist Lionel Loueke has collaborated with Hancock. Together, they leveraged the chemistry that they developed with each other and with Mitchellís music, translating it into a wide-sweeping, panoramic, and, at times, impressionistic exploration of her canon.

Whether performing with or without the guest vocalists, Hancock and his band members lovingly bathe Mitchellís compositions in an array of textures that spiral outward from the elaborate interplay of the musicians. Still, on River: The Joni Letters, Hancock and Shorter are the real stars, and more often than not, their connection is what fuels the fire that burns deep within the endeavor. As Jones sweetly applies her voice to Court and Spark, Hancock and Shorter push each other along, thereby animating the songís searching, soaring, and soulful qualities. On the title track, Hancock playfully channels Vince Guaraldiís Skating, while Shorter vaguely echoes the Jingle Bells refrain that Mitchell had used so hauntingly in her original rendition. Elsewhere, the duo blends their hushed saxophone and crystalline piano accompaniments to contort the pensive ruminations of Both Sides Now until only its mood bears a resemblance to the familiar tune, and Mitchell wrings sad-eyed loneliness from Tea Leaf Prophecy as Hancock and Shorter raise the level of tension with the drama of their dance. In the end, what Hancock and Shorter ultimately accomplish with River: The Joni Letters is truly remarkable. They essentially pay tribute to Mitchellís work by surrendering themselves completely to her compositions and allowing her words and music to carry them on a most extraordinary journey into her mind, her heart, and her soul. starstarstarstar

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50th Annual Grammy Award Winner:
Album of the Year

50th Annual Grammy Award Winner:
Best Contemporary Jazz Album

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Of Further Interest...

Joni Mitchell - Shine

Thelonious Monk - Live at the 1964 Monterey Jazz Festival

McCoy Tyner - Fly with the Wind

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River: The Joni Letters is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!

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Ratings

1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!

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Copyright © 2007 The Music Box