Herbie Hancock - River: The Joni Letters (Verve, 2007)
When I first heard about this project, I was skeptical. Although I love both Herbie Hancock's and Joni Mitchell's music, I wasn't convinced that this wouldn't just be a slapped together project. The music is for the most part slow paced and contemplative and it takes a while to sink in. But once it gets its claws into you, it becomes apparent the durability of the Mitchell melodies and the work that Hancock and company put into re-envisioning them. It's particularly wonderful to hear Hancock and Wayne Shorter who have developed an uncanny empathy together. They both play very sparely on this disc, leaving a skeletal structure and allowing the listener to draw their own conclusions. The vocals are by committee, and for the most part work well. Norah Jones takes a slow and contemplative approach to "Court and Spark" and Tina Turner brings an understated sauciness to “Edith And The Kingpin.” Corinne Bailey Rae is a touch too cheeky singing "River," but the lyrics are so poetic and the instrumental accompaniment so astute that the song becomes nearly indestructible. But the highlight is Joni Mitchell herself singing "Tea Leaf Prophecy" with a hard won, world weary grace. "Both Sides Now" and "Sweet Bird" are taken instrumentally, getting wonderful readings, particularly the latter which is a bravura performance of thoughtful improvisation. Duke Ellington's "Solitude" and Shorter's "Nefertiti" round out the instrumental portion of the program gracefully re-harmonizing these old warhorses. This is a very thoughtful and well done album, Mitchell's music is perfect for jazz investigation, and Hancock and company have done a fine job.
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Ben Watt and Robert Wyatt
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