There were a number of reasons I hesitated to buy Herbie Hancock’s River-The Joni Letters. First, I couldn’t download it illegally, so I needed to actually pay for it on iTunes. Second, it was a tribute album, which is always a warning sign for me. And third, possibly most importantly-though the money one was up there, it was a tribute to Joni Mitchell, an artist that brought up images of middle-aged white woman and the dreaded genre “adult contemporary.” I had always been hesitant looking into artists I saw as part of that genre-the Police, Phil Collins, Marilyn Manson. But still, this was Herbie Hancock, the man behind Headhunters, the keyboardist in a legendary Miles Davis group. So I got it, and for that I am ever thankful.
As I was debating buying this CD, the big names on the track list were enticing. Herbie was able to get Norah Jones, Corinne Bailey Rae, Leonard Cohen, and even Joni Mitchell herself to lend their voices. For the album, Herbie used a regular piano to create the classic jazz sound, something I had never heard from him before. There is no trace of the funk from “Rockit” or Bitches Brew here.
But as those first notes twinkle on “Court and Spark” before Norah Jones begins, I was transported to another world. I like to call this world the jazz world, something I first experienced with my first purchased jazz CD, In A Silent Way. The piano gives a very soothing feeling, my heart slows and I can close my eyes and drift off. The sound compliments Norah’s voice very well. As always, she provides a stellar performance-as does each of the guest performers.
As I tried to make abundantly clear in the intro, I do not listen to Joni Mitchell. At all. I had heard one song, “Both Sides Now,” which Herbie Hancock covers on the album, but his version is completely different. For one thing, it is one of the instrumental tracks, and I feel one of the weaker ones. The band seems to try too hard to capture the essence of the song, the verse, the feeling. Also it is far too long, without much spirit. The other instrumental tracks, “Sweet Bird,” “Solitude,” and “Nefertiti” (which is not a cover) are much better as the band feels less restrained and more comfortable.
The drumming and bass are pretty standard, but Wayne Shorter on saxophone is as big a part of this album as Herbie Hancock, the guest vocalists or Joni. He adds an extra layer of relaxation, he has the tone down. It acts as another vocalist, interacting with the guests and with Herbie. And through that he makes something that at times surpasses Herbie.
I feel like singing the praises of each singer on the album-Norah Jones, Tina Turner, Corinne Bailey Rae, Joni Mitchell, Luciana Souza. All of them are fantastic choices, but I’ll focus on Leonard Cohen who takes a completely different approach with his song “The Jungle Line.” It is the last song on the album, a duet between Leonard and Herbie. Herbie stays on the lower end of his piano, coming in with a beautiful, dark little riff each time Leonard says “the jungle line.” And Leonard doesn’t sing, he speaks the song like a poem. It is this song that truly makes me feel I should listen to Joni herself. Leonard is an old man, and I have heard one of his later records, his singing voice is…gone, so I am grateful he decided to speak through the song. But it works absolutely spectacularly. His voice is as deep and dark as the song, and really highlights that Joni was a poet.
Herbie Hancock knew very well what he was doing when he made this album. He appreciated Ms. Mitchell’s work, saw the jazz in it, and took it a step further. He used his big name to get some of the best singers in the business to make one of the most beautiful albums of the last year. Oh, it won a Grammys. Nice.
Recommended Tracks: River, The Tea Leaf Prophecy, The Jungle Line