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Cover Art

Herbie Hancock ( )

River: The Joni Letters
Verve ( )

The Grammy voters have long had a love affair with the music of Joni Mitchell.  Her work has been responsible for at least 14 Grammy awards prior to this year.  Herbie Hancock’s River the Joni Letters was nominated for Album of the Year. Therefore, it was interesting to see how these voters would consider this jazz giant’s take on Mitchell’s music.  Eight of the ten songs on the CD are Joni Mitchell compositions and Hancock threw in an Ellington composition and one from his pal Wayne Shorter for good measure.  The assembled cast for this project is pretty much a dream line-up.  Hancock on piano, Shorter on saxes, Dave Holland on bass, Vinnie Colaiuta, drums and  relative newcomer Lionel Loueke on guitar. The playing is superb throughout.  Loueke’s guitar comes through beautifully on “River”; the rhythm section, with Colaiuta’s light touch with the brushes and Holland’s wonderful timing is exquisite everywhere.  The combination of Shorter and Hancock, which can at times go awry in live performance, is brilliant on this CD.  The cast of vocalists are Norah Jones, Tina Turner, Mitchell, Corinne Bailey Rae, Luciana Souza and fittingly, Leonard Cohen was chosen for a spoken word version of “The Jungle Line.”  Hancock does not let us forget that Mitchell is a great poet.  While the vocals are all inspired, I found the   highlight to be Luciana Souza’s laid back delivery on “Amelia” to be very effective and Joni Mitchell, well--is Joni Mitchell, on “Tea Leaf Prophecy.”


Hancock’s dark opening piano notes on “Court and Spark” signalled that this is not just going to be another pedestrian attempt at covering Joni Mitchell’s beloved tunes.  Yet the arrangement gets back to the spirit of Joni’s composition and Norah Jones, who I usually find beautifully bland, put some heart into this song.  Topped off with Wayne Shorter’s sax and I indeed, was sold on the album right away.  Apparently so were the Grammy voters as River the Joni Letters won the Album of the Year Grammy—the big one—for Herbie Hancock. 

Choosing songs for a Joni Mitchell project must be daunting.  Which songs do you pick? Hancock has wisely chosen a mix of Mitchell’s popular songs such as “Court and Spark” and “Both Sides Now,” along with some of her more obscure works. Joni Mitchell has long straddled the folk and jazz worlds. If you go back to her Mingus album in 1979 you can see that she has had a long standing relationship with jazz and the musicians in that world.  Charlie Mingus  left her with a bit of a bitter taste, as she was once quoted as saying that he used her to get a bigger funeral, yet she has continued to record jazz from time to time.  Happily the jazz world has embraced her music, too and hopefully Herbie Hancock’s “River the Joni Letters” will get a new generation digging into her wonderful musical legacy.  Who knows they just might begin to appreciate jazz, too!

By Jim Dupuis
Jul 1, 2008

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