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Review of Herbie Hancock's 'River: the Joni Letters'

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Review of Herbie Hancock's 'River: the Joni Letters'
Verve Music Group
Pianist Herbie Hancock's River – The Joni Letters (Verve) is the eleventh Grammy-winning album in the jazz legend's diverse long-ranging and diverse catalog. It was a shock to the pop music world for a jazz album to win over the recordings of stars such as Amy Winehouse and Kanye West, but the music on River represents a high level of sophistication and craftsmanship while remaining accessible and enjoyable for a popular audience.

A Jazz Master

Hancock rose to fame as a member of trumpeter Miles Davis' quintet in the early 1960s, where he displayed his prowess as a straight-ahead jazz soloist. That quintet – which also included Wayne Shorter, the saxophonist heard on River – was one of the pinnacle jazz groups of the 1960s. Since his time with Davis, Hancock has stretched his limits and has displayed his versatility and ease in various styles of music, including jazz, pop, funk, R&B, and rock.

Paying Homage to a Pop Icon

River is a tribute to Joni Mitchell, whose pure voice and colorful lyrics have lifted her to an iconic status in American folk and popular music. In the 1970s, Mitchell began to experiment with jazz concepts, featuring the drums and accompanying instruments like trumpets and saxophones, and singing over grooves and jazz rhythmic feels. Each track on River is a contemplative interpretation of some of Joni Mitchell’s jazz-influenced songs.

A Master's Interpretive Skills

Hancock’s technical virtuosity is not on display on this recording, but instead his sensitivity to the singers shines through. He lays down a lush bed on which the warm voices of Norah Jones, Tina Turner, Corinne Bailey Rae, Luciana Souza, and Joni Mitchell herself curl up and daydream. On “The Jungle Line,” featuring Leonard Cohen’s gravelly spoken word, Hancock’s gestures play the characters in the story.

His playing drifts with the comfort of a musician who has seen and done it all. He stays away from the fiery and frenetic lines that younger jazz musicians tend to employ. His solos are relaxed and reflective, and when he accompanies the singers, each of whom has a distinct style, his support allows them to grasp nuanced moods with meditative ease.

Top Tracks on River

  • “Court and Spark” – Norah Jones treats this Joni Mitchell classic with restraint, as Wayne Shorter’s soprano saxophone interjections blossom into a beautifully agitated solo.

  • “Edith and the Kingpin” – Tina Turner seems perfectly at home in this groove-oriented piece. Her voice is a great match with Shorter’s tenor saxophone sound.

  • “River” – British pop star Corinne Bailey Rae gives an emotional rendition of the title track, her spirited embellishments evoking the image of a frozen river.

  • “The Tea Leaf Prophecy (Lay Down Your Arms)” – Joni Mitchell’s voice on this track, although more limited in range than when she was younger, has taken on a smoky, haunting quality.

  • “Nefertiti” – Absent of vocals, this track is a classic Wayne Shorter tune, and the instrumentalists demonstrate a playful freedom and a variety of moods.

Making Jazz Appeal to All

For the non-jazz listener, this recording will expose some of the subtleties, freedom, and cerebral ambiances that jazz is so good at achieving. Jazz aficionados can find satisfaction in the masterful way Hancock cracks open and explores Mitchell’s songs, and the way Shorter crawls inside the harmonies and nudges and pokes through the blanket of textures provided by the expert rhythm section, composed of Hancock, Dave Holland on bass, Lionel Loueke on guitar, and Vinnie Colaiuta on drums.

River is an example of one musical hero feeding off of the innovations of another, and the energy and appeal of the recording is due to the musical and expressive growth that results.

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