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December 2007

Herbie Hancock
River: The Joni Letters
Verve

Neither a conventional tribute album nor a conventional Herbie Hancock record, whatever that is by now, River: The Joni Letters is instead a refreshingly different breed of “concept” album. It is also a brilliant piece of work, one of the most captivating jazz releases of 2007, the impact of which deepens on repeated listening. The subject, of course, is the poetess of song Joni Mitchell, unquestionably one of the greatest singer-songwriters of all-time, who transcends any genre or epoch.

Hancock’s most significant achievement here is to invite a dialogue between Mitchell’s own personalized engagement with the language of jazz and the ability of sensitive jazz musicians—here including Hancock, bassist Dave Holland, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and coloristic guitarist Lionel Lueke—to capture qualities of poise and poetry linked back to Mitchell’s distinctive musical voice. Jazz sensibilities and Joni Mitchell’s world enjoy a logical mutual admiration.

Mitchell has worked with Hancock before, starting with the landmark pop-jazz project Mingus, and she has worked more extensively and on a deeper level with her virtual soulmate Wayne Shorter, whose role on this project is pivotal. What he adds to the whole, soaring and musing and posing questions with just the right number of notes and nuances, is quietly miraculous. Despite the cameo presences of all-star guest vocalists—including Mitchell herself on the wistful and luminous “Tea Leaf Prophecy”—Shorter is actually the album’s real lead singer. Listen to his mystic tenor saxophonic “singing” on the cloudy instrumental version of “Both Sides Now” and laying out exotic contours on “River.”

Shorter is set up beautifully and with airy grace by Hancock, in a particularly impressionistic mood, befitting the song content, and also drawing comparisons to 1+1, Hancock’s understated duet record with Shorter. It makes perfect sense, too, that one of the two jazz tunes ladled into the mix, aside from Ellington’s “Solitude,” is a new take on Shorter’s own quixotic masterpiece, “Nefertiti,” whose cyclical structure, mysterious corners and resistance to easy resolution can be viewed as a template for Mitchell’s aesthetic to come.

Fittingly, Hancock kicks off his song set with “Court and Spark,” an early example of Mitchell’s courting of jazz harmonies and notions, circa 1974. Norah Jones does the respectful vocal honors here, passing the microphone to the feistier Tina Turner for “Edith and the Kingpin,” Corrine Bailey Rae on “River,” and Luciana Souza, who captures the right heat and texture on “Amelia” (Souza is now a collaborator and spouse of this album’s co-producer, Larry Klein, formerly Mitchell’s producer-spouse: a lovely crooked symmetry there). As if nodding to great Canadian word culture, Leonard Cohen also shows up, and his purring gravel voice is put to great use reciting the noir-meets-cosmic-mojo lines of “The Jungle Line,” while Hancock lays out an evocative piano backdrop.

This is Hancock’s finest album since Gershwin’s World, with which it shares some values. But whereas his tribute to Gershwin was a multi-tiered, multi-textured pastiche, he pays his respects to his friend Mitchell in a more organic fashion. It feels like a jazz record, based around the open-spirited work of a great core band, with guest vocalists flown in to deliver the lyrical beauty. In the final rub, River inspires complex reflections on the wonders of Joni, the renewable and re-workable nature of great art, and artistic life beyond borders and genres.

Originally published in December 2007
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