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Herbie Hancock, "River: The Joni Letters" Print-ready version

by Don Zulaica
October 18, 2007

At first glance, the name pairing of Herbie Hancock and Joni Mitchell might seem a bit strange. But really, it's not. Both stretch far beyond simple labels, Mitchell beyond "songwriter" and Hancock beyond "jazz" or even "pop," for those of you who remember those dancing robots on the 1980s hit "Rockit."

Here, Hancock finds himself serving songs in a different way. The harmonic prowess is certainly there, but nothing comes off heavy handed. It's very different from when Hancock played behind a musical voice like Miles Davis, who would take nothing less than pushing envelopes when interpreting tunes. With Mitchell's material, it's a more subdued, lyric-driven, tangible touch. No doubt this is partially due to the collaboration with Larry Klein, Mitchell's longtime producer and musical collaborator.

The result is an album that jazz aficionados will appreciate for its nuance, and Mitchell fans should be stunned by its beauty.

Norah Jones shows why she became a sensation with her sultry take of "Court and Spark," and Tina Turner is shockingly exquisite on the 1975 tune "Edith and the Kingpin," in a way that most haven't heard in years; this is a soul singer who hasn't lost an ounce of the stuff. Elvis Costello has attempted to cover the same song on a Mitchell tribute album, and, simply put, next to Turner, it's not fair.

On the title track, Corinne Bailey Rae plaintively dreams, "I'm going to make a lot of money, then I'm going to quit this crazy scene," and Mitchell herself leads on "The Tea Leaf Prophecy (Lay Down Your Arms)." It's a lower register than a few decades ago, but the singer and song have lost none of their power, or spark.

Juxtaposed to the vocal interpretations of Mitchell classics are instrumentals that sparkle as well, including the Wayne Shorter composition "Nefertiti," which features Shorter himself--an interesting revisitation considering the saxophonist wrote this while he and Hancock were in Miles Davis's historic second quintet. Another is the Edgar de Lange/Duke Ellington/Irving Mills ballad "Solitude." Again, seemingly odd, Ellington and Shorter on a Joni Mitchell tribute album, but, upon closer listen, it all makes perfect sense. The worlds are not nearly as far apart as some might assume.

It begs the question: why didn't they try this before?

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