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Hancock's Letters well worth revisiting Print-ready version

by Philip Martin
Arkansas Online
January 28, 2018

Ignorance can be bliss: The tone-deaf man sings arias in the privacy of his car.

He doesn't need to know anything about time signatures or keys or the difference between sostenuto and legato. He just makes noise authentically. And if he doesn't inflict it on unsuspecting ears -- if he is humble in his ambitions -- he does no harm. If it makes him feel good, that's great.

On the other hand, if it seems easy you are probably doing it wrong. Or at least not as well as it might be done were you to, through deliberate practice, marry whatever natural ability you have to established techniques. Cultures evolve musical conventions -- certain tones and intervals are privileged over others. Most people can tell when something sounds right; they feel a relaxation of tension when a chord progression resolves in the way it's subliminally expected to resolve.

Knowing a little puts you at risk of becoming a snob. Only infants are innocent, and only until they know better.

A lot of us who love music have an uneasy relationship with jazz. If we are not blessed with the sort of ears that immediately embrace Ornette Coleman at his most contentious or Anthony Braxton's deep math, it is an acquired taste. As with all acquired tastes, there are those who will argue the benefit does not outweigh the cost -- the Ramones are more fun than Thelonious Monk and don't ask much of their listeners. There are those who will decide that anyone who professes to actually like jazz is a poseur.

Then there's the second group, exclusionists who would impose high tariffs on any who'd like to join their club. I'll admit that it is this second group, self-styled jazz cats dismissive not only of pop music but of jazz populists like George Benson, Paquito D'Rivera, Pat Metheny, etc., who prevented me from following the interesting threads I'd picked from the coattails of Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck and following them deeper into jazz until I was well into my 30s. It wasn't the music I found daunting as much as the hep cats -- guys like the Sebastian character Ryan Gosling plays in La La Land. Guys who'd snort at you if you didn't immediately recognize an inversion of a minor 7th chord or if you expressed a preference for vocal music.

It took awhile to get past the hall monitors.

One of my earliest dalliances with jazz came via Joni Mitchell's 1979 album Mingus, which is the sort of accessible experiment that jazz snobs roll their eyes at.

It started as a Charles Mingus project, with the post-bop composer having received a commission to score a musical version of of T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets. Mingus enlisted Mitchell as the project's singer and charged her with condensing Eliot's work -- a task she eventually decided was impossible. But the ailing Mingus -- he was dying from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease) -- gave her six melodies to work on. Mitchell -- always an adventurous musician at least as concerned with sonic texture and thematic thrust of music as its lyrical content (though writers are always going to focus on her words) -- undertook the project in a spirit of genuine collaboration. When Mingus died shortly after the album was completed, a few months before it was released, the project was cast as a tribute.

Mingus turned out to be a rather cool record and my least favorite of her studio albums (although I'd never be without a copy). I'd only bought it because I was such a Mitchell fan and admit being confounded by it at the time, though it did introduce me to bassist Jaco Pastorius (he'd been her bass player since 1975's Hejira), saxophonist Wayne Shorter and their band Weather Report. Herbie Hancock, whose name I knew, played keyboards.

While it would be another decade or so before I'd really begin listening intently to jazz -- and to develop a true affinity with be bop and abrasive dissonances and jerking changes in meter and tempo associated with free jazz -- Mingus was, if not a gateway drug, at least an introduction. It didn't seem so strange after that.

Which leads me to one of my favorite records of the past decade -- another that jazz purists scoff at. It's Herbie Hancock's River: The Joni Letters, which in 2007 beat Amy Winehouse's Back to Black, the Foo Fighters' Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace, Vince Gill's These Days and Kanye West's Graduation. River: The Joni Letters was the first jazz album to win album of the year since the Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto collaboration Getz/Gilberto in 1965.

The album was re-released in December in a two-disc expanded version that includes four songs -- the Sonya Kitchell-sung "All I Want" along with instrumental versions of "A Case of You," "Harlem in Havana," and "I Had a King" -- not included on the original release. If you missed it the first time around (and a lot of people did, it was also the only record in Grammy history to win album of the year before it charted on the Billboard 100) it's worth seeking out; even if you think you don't care for jazz.

Hancock and his fine band -- Lionel Loueke (guitar), Shorter (soprano and tenor saxophones), Dave Holland (bass), Vinnie Colaiuta (drums) -- track an elegant and understated series of instrumentals and vocal interpretations of some of Mitchell's best (and best-known) songs. It works in large part because Mitchell was never at heart a chord-strumming folkie putting her poems to music. Though writers will invariably focus on her words, she has always been as interested in the dynamics of melody, harmony and rhythm as her lyrics.

(One of the stupidest things ever overheard at a Guitar Center -- the competition is hot -- was the observation that Mitchell "didn't really play guitar" so she made up tunings that allowed her to write her songs. In truth, when in the mid-'70s Mitchell approached Robbie Robertson and the Band to back her on a tour, they declined because they didn't think they were musically sophisticated enough to do her material justice.)

Anyway, there are some very Joni-esque vocalists here -- Norah Jones, Corinne Bailey Rae and Mitchell herself on "Tea Leaf Prophecy" -- but also a couple of wild cards, namely Tina Turner, whose reading of the cinematic "Edith and the Kingpin" is both impeccable and, as she is wont to say, a little bit rough, and Mitchell's fellow Canadian Leonard Cohen who lends his gravitas to a reading of "The Jungle Line."

But make no mistake -- this is a jazz record with vocals, not some adult contemporary-smooth jazz hybrid. The instrumentals, which generally alternate with the vocal tracks, are smoky and soulful but precise -- there's plenty of power in reserve. Shorter's lyric tenor sax leads trail tenderly along, while Hancock's piano comps chromatically.

It's a stunning album made more poignant by Mitchell's recent health problems and the increasing likeliness she'll never record again. You don't have to like jazz to love it.

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