Herbie Hancock: River: The Joni Letters (2008)
How we rate: our writers tend to review music they like within their preferred genres.
The participation of such former and present Grammy nominees and winners as Norah Jones, Tina Turner, Corinne Bailey Rae, Luciana Souza and Leonard Cohen (reading "The Jungle Line" like a beat poet), as well as the iconic stature of Joni Mitchell herself, may have immeasurably helped in winning this CD the Grammy Album of the Year award. But that doesn't diminish the significance of it being the first jazz album to win the award in forty-three years. For make no mistake about it, this is a jazz album, regardless of the contributions of pop and soul singers. And the jazz heart of it is the most-accessible-in-years instance of one of jazz' great collaborations, that between pianist Herbie Hancock and soprano and tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter.
Some recent Hancock-Shorter recordings have been rather abstract and cerebraljazz as a chess matchbut here, dealing with Joni Mitchell's harmonically suave tunes, both play with an ease, grace and involvement that immediately connects with the listener. Hear them trade solos with nonchalance between Norah Jones' rather breathless rendition of "Court and Spark" or how Shorter adds generous, earthy tenor sax obligatos and solo commentary to Tina Turner's vocal on "Edith and the Kingpin." His soprano even sings along with Rae on "The River" and adds perfect punctuations to Souza's verses on "Amelia," where the singer sounds like a younger Mitchell.
Hancock and Shorter are at their lyrically ruminative best in reharmonized and abstracted instrumental versions of two Mitchell songs: a "Both Sides Now" as lushLionel Loueke's guitar chords burnishing the tenor sax soloas Mitchell's was bouncy and a silky "Sweet Bird" with Shorter's tenor sax shadowing Hancock's limpid piano solo. Hancock does a completely reharmonized trio (with bassist Dave Holland and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta) exploration on Duke Ellington's "Solitude" that also plays cat-and-mouse with the time. And Shorter's "Nefertiti," first recorded by the pair in the classic mid-1960s Miles Davis Quintet, is given a surprisingly brash going over here in the one track where Colaiuta really breaks out his sticks.
Track Listing: Court and Spark; Edith and the Kingpin; Both Sides Now; River; Sweet Bird; Tea Leaf Propechy; Solitude; Amelia; Nefertiti; The Jungle Line.
Personnel: Herbie Hancock: piano; Wayne Shorter: soprano and tenor saxophones; Dave Holland: bass; Vinnie Colaiuta: drums; Lionel Loueke: guitar; Norah Jones: vocal (1); Tina Turner: vocal (2); Corinne Bailey Rae: vocal (4); Joni Mitchell: vocal (6); Luciana Souza: vocal (8); Leonard Cohen: vocal (10).
Record Label: Verve Music Group