Released on the same day as Joni Mitchell’s new and mature recording, Shine, River: The Joni Letters is a companion of great contrast. Where Shine is a grim look forward through a new set of often ponderous Mitchell melodies, the new Herbie Hancock album is a celebration of Joni Mitchell’s past with her great songs, her musical influences, and still-mysterious and magical affinity for jazz.
First things first: this is a jazz record. It might even be a great one. It features impressive pop vocals from Norah Jones, Corinne Bailey Rae, Leonard Cohen, Tina Turner, and Mitchell herself. The great bulk of the record is dominated by a killer band: Hancock’s acoustic piano, Dave Holland on bass, Lionel Loueke on guitar, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, and most importantly the saxophone art of Wayne Shorter. Here you’ll find Herbie’s trio complexly reharmonizing Ellington’s “Solitude” and the quartet with Shorter reinventing Wayne’s epochal tune “Nefertiti”. Without vocals, the band abstracts Joni’s first hit, “Both Sides Now” and puts a serious post-bop hoodoo treatment on her “Sweet Bird”.
The playing of this group is the headline. Hancock and Shorter are two of the living heavyweights of jazz, here playing open, inspired, and uncompromised music. Hancock’s playing is impressionistic and subtle but at the same time cut loose from any rules but his own, a reminder of what a great and assimilating jazz player he has always been. Shorter’s playing is weirder and even more wonderful. All through the record, he plays the skittering, keening lines that have marked his best work since his days with Hancock in Miles Davis’s band. He weaves his otherworldly sound through nearly every nook and cranny of every tune. For this work alone, the collaboration of two geniuses of modern jazz and contemporary composition, River should be on the lips of every jazz fanatic.
What makes the record a sensation, however, is how effectively it juxtaposes the abstract jazz readings with vocal interpretations of Mitchell’s essential songs. The band plays with the same adventurous intensity whether it is freely improvising on its own or accompanying the likes of Tina Turner. Plainly, these tracks are not going to be played on pop radio any time soon. Was there really a time when Joni’s own music was played on pop radio? It seems forever ago. But who cares? Turner is hardly the most likely Joni interpreter, but her “Edith and the Kingpin” is natural and sinuous. She seems completely comfortable with Joni’s slippery melody, and there is authentic heat in hearing Tina’s vinegar pipes contrast with Hancock’s pianist impressionism and Shorter’s perpetually restless tenor sound.
The two current pop vocalists don’t seem thrown by the all-star jazz group either. Norah Jones works generous blues into “Court and Spark”, bending up the “some” on “I worry sometimes” with sensuous control. Immediately thereafter, Shorter enters with a soprano saxophone solo of masterful originality and clarity. It’s the first song on the record, and it’s hard to imagine things getting much better. Yet rookie pop star Corinne Bailey Rae sings the classic “River” as if it were hers, blending with Wayne’s soprano on the one hand, but adding all sorts of wordless “ooooohs” and smiling slides that are utterly her own. Here, Loueke’s acoustic guitar is perfect, adding some African rhythm to the mix, against which Shorter and Hancock play continual conversation. Some tasteful vocal overdubs add a touch of candy to the song, also helping to differentiate it from the languidly tragic version that we all know from Joni’s Blue.
The instrumental tracks will keep River: The Joni Letters from becoming too popular. Hancock’s re-imagining of “Both Sides Now” is essentially unrecognizable, gussied up in a seven-minute web of stunning harmonies. But it is beautiful and it’s the best playing we’ve heard from Herbie in a couple of decades. Loueke’s guitar is barely audible but crucially signals the entrance of the melody in shadow, presaging a tenor solo that melds with the piano rather than taking over. On “Sweet Bird”, Hancock and Shorter state the melody consecutively, but soon all bets are off as the whole band takes things in the direction of a free ballad.
The two jazz standards are stated with just as much beautiful impressionism. “Solitude” is just for the piano trio, and Hancock gives the Ellington tune a hip new bass line that recurs at intervals. Shorter’s “Nefertiti” is played with even more abstraction than the original, with the melody stated only in fragments at first, the two improvisers engaging in a long musical discussion that amounts to a daring collective improvisation.
A couple of tracks fare less well. “The Jungle Line” is recited with a delicious sense of drama and a generous focus on Joni’s brilliant lyric writing by Leonard Cohen while Hancock fills and colors around him, but it comes off as a coda from some different project. The reading of “Amelia” is the one thing there that seems too close to the original, and it suffers for it. Brazilian singer Luciana Souza sounds too much like the young Joni, and she is outshined by Hancock’s and Shorter’s playing. The flat delivery that works so well for Souza on her bossa-ish material feels here tentative and unsure. But even these tracks greatly repay repeated listening.
There can’t be much doubt, of course, about the tune that is delivered by Mitchell herself. “The Tea Leaf Prophesy” is from 1988’s Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm, and fans may be relatively less familiar with it. Like nearly all the material here and on Joni’s new Shine, this is long, slow and lyrical, a mood and approach that Hancock and Mitchell seem to have agreed upon just like the release dates of their albums. Indeed, Hancock, Mitchell, and Shorter are artists as closely connected as seems imaginable. Hearing Mitchell’s time-deepened alto paired again with Shorter’s soprano sax makes you wonder why she ever records without him and Hancock seems the perfect foil for both. The voice and saxophone sound sinuous and blues-coy, arcing high through the air, while Hancock’s piano is an artfully woven safety net beneath them. It is impossible not to wonder what would happen if Mitchell’s new music were recorded with such an interactive and sympathetic band? Would it be a certified masterpiece?
If River: The Joni Letters is not quite a masterpiece, it is because that is the nature of such tribute records. It jumps about some with its different singers and instrumental shufflings. This seems to be Hancock’s preferred mode lately. His previous disc was a series of pairings with pop artists and 1998’s Gershwin’s World was a travelogue of styles around one composer. River: The Joni Letters is hugely more successful than those pu-pu platters. Indeed, it is Hancock’s most beautiful and daring album since the 1970s.
Too many of his recent projects have seemed to be bids for approval either from the public of from the academy when Hancock hardly needs either. River may be a treatment of a “popular” artist, but it is a daring treatment that sticks to a core band of great musicians. While each visitor on the vocal tracks gives the songs a different slant, the great thrust of the record is in hearing Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter play together again. They play with unfettered free lyricism and with a completely sympathetic band.
While pop fans of Corinne Bailey Rae and Tina Turner will not likely warm to the whole of this disc, listeners with big ears, be they Joni fanatics or Hancock’s more traditional jazz listeners, should rejoice. Herbie Hancock, the mature jazz artist most deeply connected to pop sensibilities, has created another classic record utterly on his own terms.