Herbie Hancock: Inspired By the Written Word of a Friend

R.J. DeLuke By

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It's not out of character for me to do something that they don’t expect. It would be out of character for me to do something that they do expect.
Herbie HancockIf Herbie Hancock never played another note, or gave the world nothing more for the rest of his life other than electronic pop or dyed-in-the-wool, straight-ahead, VSOP-style jazz—it wouldn't matter. His stature, accomplishments and legacy are secure. But he doesn't do that. Not his nature. Which is one of the reasons why, even among great pianists—and Hancock resides at the zenith of his instrument—he is held in a particularly higher esteem.

The musician who made his bones killin' 'em with unrelenting swing, great sound and unbridled creativity, and then made his home address Mount Olympus with the classic Miles Davis quintet of the mid-to-late 1960s, could have stayed put. But he's always moved on into other areas that touch on rock, pop, funk—all music that he appreciates; music that has been part of a vast American musical landscape. But he continues to explore. He tries to remain fresh.

His latest project is River: The Joni Letters (Verve, 2007), a tribute to the music of an old friend and colleague, Joni Mitchell. Hancock recorded with Mitchell on her 1979 Asylum album, Mingus, which was done in collaboration with jazz great Charles Mingus, stricken at the time with the Multiple Sclerosis that would take his life before long. Hancock later appeared on Mitchell's 2000 orchestral collection for Reprise, Both Sides Now. Hancock's new project is produced by Mitchell's former collaborator and husband, Larry Klein. It's a docket of almost all Mitchell-penned music, but reworked through different sensibilities.

Hancock is specific that he would not have taken on the project if he couldn't bring his own sensibilities to it, based on his interpretations of the poetic lyrics and the feelings that funneled from there, through his musical mind and heart, and out to the band; and, ultimately, the CD.

It's made for a good year for the iconic folk-rock Mitchell. Her own new album, Shine on Starbuck's Hear Music label, her first after a long hiatus, was released on the same day last month. Mitchell is back forging her brand of hip, poetic music that draws inspiration from sources including jazz. But it's always distinctly Joni Mitchell. She also recently had her art exhibited in New York City and The Fiddle and the Drum, a ballet collaboration between Mitchell and Alberta Ballet's artistic creator Jean Grand-Maître, was broadcast on the Bravo television network. Not a bad year for someone who has long been considered one of the true artists to step out of the much of the noise that made up the "revolution of the 1960s and early 1970s. With the world falling down in the new millennium, the more true art we can get the better.

Hancock works with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, bassist Dave Holland and guitarist Lionel Loueke on the album, and there are six vocal numbers, performed by Norah Jones, Tina Turner, Luciana Souza, Corinne Bailey Rae, Leonard Cohen, and Mitchell herself. The result is carefully crafted and sweetly executed. With a conscious effort to stay true to the lyrics, even above the music, it results in a simplified beauty; whimsical at times, and deep in others.


Tina Turner is delicious on "Edith and the Kingpin. She's not Soul Diva here, but adds a full, rich sound that is cushioned sweetly by the band, telling Joni's story with a direct and sensual feel. Perhaps understated for her, she sounds great. Leonard Cohen does a spoken word version of "The Jungle Line, which was all heavy rhythm in its original form. It features only Hancock's piano behind Cohen's spoken word. Hancock is ethereal; Cohen haunting. Duke Ellington's "Solitude and Shorter's "Nefertiti are the only non-Mitchell contributions, numbers that were influential to the songstress over the years. They come the closest to pure jazz, but Hancock is unconcerned whether they sound like jazz or not. He plays music according to his lifestyle, which is open, searching and inclusive, influenced by his longtime study and practice of Buddhism. The broad brush Hancock paints with dips into the same musical and creative paint that his last mentor, Miles, used during his legendary career. Hancock loves change, new challenges, different approaches.

"It's funny because Wayne and I have had a lot of conversations about the state of jazz today and what's happening, he told AAJ a few years back. "We realize that there doesn't seem to be a lot of people looking into new ways of reexamining the conventions that we've grown to accept in the music.

Hancock, 67—"a child piano prodigy from Chicago —doesn't care about what the critics might say, or what fans might say. If he pursues his art and is true to himself, it will be an honest statement and, therefore, valid. And accepted. His fortitude has served him well from his early days with trumpeter Donald Byrd and his 1960s Blue Note records and hits like "Watermelon Man, through his tenure with Miles, into electronics with Headhunters, through the Rockit band and beyond.

Thus the music of River, influenced by Mitchell, is pure Herbie in collaboration with his mates. He's fine with that. Listeners will be too.

He took time out of a busy schedule recently to discuss the new record with All About Jazz:

All About Jazz: Let's start with the new disc. I know you have an association with Joni Mitchell, but what brought you to this album at this point?

Herbie Hancock: The idea of doing a record of Joni Mitchell's music wasn't something that came out of my head. The person who's head of A&R at Verve, we were discussing what I might do for my next record. He said, "Would you consider doing the music of Joni Mitchell? I know how much you respect Joni and admire her and her work. I said, "That's a great idea. I would like to take credit for it, but I can't. [laughs]. It wasn't my idea. But the main point is that it was a good idea.


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