Herbie Hancock's win for 'River' stirs waters in jazz community, beyond

by Steve Jones
USA Today
February 20, 2008

It took 43 years for jazz to capture its second best-album Grammy, snared last week by Herbie Hancock's River: The Joni Letters.

How long will it take to remove the asterisk imposed by mainstream critics who branded it a safe, pop-friendly pick by veteran-loving voters?

The pianist's interpretation of songs by Joni Mitchell beat out heavy favorites Graduation by Kanye West and Back to Black by Amy Winehouse. Many critics derided the decision, accusing Recording Academy voters of again overlooking more relevant music in favor of beloved old hands, most recently with Steely Dan (2000) and Santana (1999). And some compared it to Norah Jones' jazz-sprinkled pop collection, Come Away With Me, 2002's album of the year.

Yet River was widely lauded by jazz critics as a serious work of depth and craft worthy of Grammy's crown.

"River is unequivocally jazz, although such broad classifications shouldn't matter," AllAboutJazz.com's John Kelman wrote. "River is, quite simply, a superb disc that takes Joni Mitchell's extant jazz proclivities and gives them an even greater interpretive boost."

It wasn't, however, a sales giant. Before the Grammys, Graduation had sold nearly 2 million copies, and Back to Black had exceeded 1.5 million, while River hovered at 55,000, according to Nielsen SoundScan. River's post-Grammy sales exploded, rising 966% over the previous week and bringing Hancock's total to 114,000.

"You can't just give the award based on popularity," says Jazziz publisher Michael Fagien. "There are a lot of lame albums out that sell a million records. I don't see how you can criticize giving an award to a musician like Herbie Hancock who has been making great music for decades. To a lot of us, the question would be, 'What took so long?' "

River was the first jazz record to win album of the year since Getz/Gilberto by Stan Getz and João Gilberto took the 1964 prize. For Hancock, 67, it was his 12th career Grammy (he also won for contemporary jazz album last week) but his first in any of the four marquee categories.

When River won, Hancock was as stunned as anyone.

"It's immeasurable how surprised I am," he told reporters backstage, expressing amazement that the win was considered by some the least adventurous route for voters. "It's odd to me to be considered a conservative choice. I've played music that's further out than any of these people."

Recording Academy president Neil Portnow defended the choice, saying, "I don't think sales has anything to do with what the academy decides in awarding albums or records. It's about excellence."

Fagien says River, which features such vocalists as Corinne Bailey Rae, Norah Jones, Tina Turner, Luciana Souza and Leonard Cohen, is another example of Hancock's career-long ability to reach across musical boundaries. He says jazz benefits from the attention that Hancock's win will bring.

Says Fagien, "Any time an artist of his stature gets this kind of recognition, it encourages people to listen to music that they may not have listened to before and makes them want to hear even more."

Contributing: Edna Gundersen

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