Herbie Hancock - River: The Joni Letters (2007)

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Joni Mitchell is no stranger to jazz. Nearly thirty years ago, she collaborated with Charles Mingus on Mingus (1979), illustrating her penchant for adding a poet and painter's perspective to melodies created far outside the pop realm. Prior to that album, she'd enlisted jazz-outfitted groups like the L.A. Express and Weather Report to add more color to her palette of sounds and images. In recent years, Mitchell explored standards on Both Sides Now (2000) and brought Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter onboard for Travelogue (2002), a two-disc set of re-imagined versions of her songs. It should come as no surprise, then, that Hancock spearheads a jazz excursion into the catalog of Joni Mitchell on Verve's River: The Joni Letters. Known for her open tunings and "chords of inquiry," Mitchell's oeuvre is a veritable feast for musicians like Hancock to interpret.

Joni Mitchell is no stranger to jazz. Nearly thirty years ago, she collaborated with Charles Mingus on Mingus (1979), illustrating her penchant for adding a poet and painter's perspective to melodies created far outside the pop realm. Prior to that album, she'd enlisted jazz-outfitted groups like the L.A. Express and Weather Report to add more color to her palette of sounds and images. In recent years, Mitchell explored standards on Both Sides Now (2000) and brought Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter onboard for Travelogue (2002), a two-disc set of re-imagined versions of her songs. It should come as no surprise, then, that Hancock spearheads a jazz excursion into the catalog of Joni Mitchell on Verve's River: The Joni Letters. Known for her open tunings and "chords of inquiry," Mitchell's oeuvre is a veritable feast for musicians like Hancock to interpret. With Wayne Shorter (saxophone), Dave Holland (bass), Vinnie Colaiuta (drums), Lionel Loueke (guitar), and an A-list line-up of vocalists, Hancock's tribute to Joni Mitchell is the finest among numerous re-considerations of Mitchell's work to land in recent years.

The album begins with Norah Jones' rendering of "Court and Spark," a song Mitchell wrote on the coast of Vancouver that served as the title of her critically acclaimed album from 1974. Jones doesn't stray to far from the original phrasing yet her inimitable voice makes it her own. Similarly, Corinne Bailey Rae, another in the contemporary crop of feathery-voiced chanteuses, brings a charm and warmth to "River", a song whose depiction of a wintry landscape has made it an inevitable addition to Christmas playlists in December.

No less a legend than Tina Turner wraps her voice around "Edith and the Kingpen," a tune from Mitchell's The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975), which Prince once cited among his favorite albums. Turner's reading of a pimp and his harem of women is thoughtful and nuanced. It is among the more revelatory performances here, as the triptych of a Joni Mitchell song sung by Tina Turner and produced by Herbie Hancock is a rare intersection of awe-inspiring talents. Whereas it is not a stretch to imagine Norah Jones, Corinne Bailey Rae, or Luciana Souza (whose voice bears a striking resemblance to mid-‘70s Joni Mitchell) tackling a Mitchell composition, the appearance of Tina Turner's raspy set of pipes is truly inspired. She is in fine voice and, if this performance is any indication, an entire album of similarly produced songs would be a welcome alternative to the rock-pop-soul hybrid that is her trademark.

Joni Mitchell herself appears on "The Tea Leaf Prophecy," a song she wrote in tribute to her parents. The lyrics come alive with the intimate, scaled-back production of Shorter's gentle wail and Hancock's deft work on the piano. When Mitchell sings, "She plants her garden in the spring/She does the winter shoveling," you can see the seasons change in just the space of a few notes. Fellow Canadian Leonard Cohen illuminates the words on "The Jungle Line" with similar effect, making the abstract lyrics tangible through a well-conceived spoken-word performance. The counterpoint of Hancock's expressive piano amplifies the drama in Cohen's riveting interpretation.

River: The Joni Letters stands on its own as a solid work. One doesn't even need to necessarily be a fan of Mitchell's music, let alone be acquainted with her original work, to derive enjoyment from these ten tracks (note: Wayne Shorter's "Nefertiti" and the Duke Ellington standard "Solitude" - one of Mitchell's favorite compositions - are the only two non-Mitchell compositions that appear). It's always a gamble to take an artist's work out of its initial context but Herbie Hancock's considerable affection for Joni Mitchell is what makes River: The Joni Letters one of the most artistically satisfying releases of 2007.

By Christian John Wikane

 
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