River: The Joni Letters
REVIEW BY: Michael Broyles
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 01/21/2009
When Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters won Album Of The Year at the 2008 Grammy Awards, the music establishment was in shock. Naysayers griped about how this was the right artist for the wrong year. Some wondered how the National Academy Of Recording Arts And Sciences could ignore the powerhouses of Amy Winehouse and Kanye West while picking an older, adventurous jazz artist to win its most prestigious award. And Hancock graciously accepted the award while honoring two of his idols -- Miles Davis and John Coltrane. But amidst the tripe and chatter, one thing remains clear: this album is amazing.
River: The Joni Letters contains mostly Joni Mitchell compositions, save “Solitude” (Edgar De Lange, Duke Ellington and Irving Mills) and Nefertiti (Wayne Shorter), two of Mitchell’s favorite jazz songs. The message is clear. Like the greatest composers of old, from Bach to Mingus to the Gershwins, Mitchell’s compositions should be held in high regard for being forever relevant and beautifully melodic while containing endless interpretive possibilities. To show this, Hancock and producer Larry Klein assembled some of the world’s greatest living musicians (Hancock on piano, Wayne Shorter on soprano and tenor saxophone, Dave Holland on bass, Vinnie Colaiuta on drums and Lionel Loueke on guitar) and vocalists (Norah Jones, Tina Turner, Corinne Bailey Rae, Joni Mitchell, Luciana Souza and Leonard Cohen) to weave together some of Mitchell’s most fruitful compositions.
River can be described many ways. It is experimental. Hancock and crew play with extended intros, melodically sparse improvisation, group interaction and dense harmonic qualities, making this a far cry from mainstream. It is compositional. Not only does the source material contain a mature, almost feng shui, sense of movement, but Hancock and Klein paid close attention to arrangement, juxtaposing silence and instrumental layers to create a vast musical landscape. Take, for instance, Hancock’s Debussy-esque intro to the Norah Jones vocalized “Court And Spark” or the esoteric piano harmonies over a pedaled (single) bass note during Shorter’s solo in “Tea Leaf Prophecy.” These arrangements are daring, fascinating and highly original. Lastly, it is lyrical. The band purposely creates sounds that reflect the songs’ lyrical content. For example, when Corinne Bailey Rae sings “I wish I had a river / I could skate away on” on the album’s title track “River,” Hancock and Shorter play counter-melodies that reflect both a sense of skating and the feeling of discontent evident in the words.
Most importantly, though, River is a jazz album, in the truest sense, that equals Hancock’s greatest works. It has a thematic acuity rarely seen. Its improvised solos are sparse and melodic while the songs are pensive and brooding reflections on the saddened soul. The album is as groundbreaking and enjoyable as Hancock’s Maiden Voyage, Headhunters, and his 1962 debut Takin’ Off. River is a breathtaking emotional experience and a grand artistic achievement for an artist who has spent over forty years pushing musical boundaries. Plus, it’s pretty hip that he finally won Album Of The Year.