River: The Joni Letters
I doubt it is too scandalous an admission that I had not heard Herbie Hancock's collection of Joni Mitchell excursions before I read that it won the Grammy as 2007 Album of the Year. The concept has Starbucks written all over it - lessee: performer and songwriter are legendary artists both past their agreed-upon prime, Norah Jones and Corinne Bailey Rae guest on it, colon in the title. Yeah, this looks like the musical equivalent of steamed cauliflower, definitely good for you and satisfying should you order it, but it's not exactly making your mouth water when you see it on the menu.
Herbie Hancock cannot be denied, let's be clear. He has been a key player on some of the greatest records ever. When his albums veer toward cliché, it serves a peckerwood to remember that the cliché was likely based on something Hancock made up in the first place. Joni Mitchell too. Her great albums are singular, weird, inspiring crossroads where convention and unfettered poetry met. Albums like Blue and Court and Spark and The Hissing of Summer Lawns hold up as well today as they did when they hatched from their alien eggs decades ago.
The shocking thing about the Grammy people picking River: The Joni Letters is not that they elected some tired-ass shit over something with more cultural currency; they do that all the time. The shock is that they did so with such exquisite taste. Far from being your typical slam-together of a legend with ingénues like the Ray Charles albums at the end, and far from being a milquetoast tractor-ride of jazz being idiosyncratic and running out of good ideas of its own, River is a sophisticated, complex, even daring musical statement.
"Court and Spark" eases us in with Hancock's delicate and occasionally dissonant piano slowly erupting out of the vacuum of space, only to ease into a narcotic fog when his peerless band comprised of Lionel Loueke, Wayne Shorter, Dave Holland and Vinnie Colaiuta engulf the sonic terrain with thick lava. Norah Jones does a good job embodying Mitchell's herky-jerk poetic style as well as playing the chanteuse, but what makes this exemplary is the slight tension in the air. The sweet dreamlike aura the band creates is intoxicating, but you catch a glimpse heat-lightning in the clouds.
The badass song here is "Edith and the Kingpin" featuring some stunning vocals from Tina Turner. Anyone with any musical knowledge can attest to the Tina's powerful voice, but I can't remember hearing a note from her since the Private Dancer era. Here, she sings with poise and gravity that you are hard-pressed to find out of anybody. She is perfectly cast as the speakeasy doll that narrates the song, a haze of cocktail jazz with an almost subliminal funk guitar percolating through the track.
Herbie shows off his quiet fireworks in the extended intro to "Both Sides Now" and the perfect complement from his band. Lionel Loueke does a good Bill Laswell impression on his guitar, sweeping the landscape like a lighthouse beam, leading to a slow-burn sax incantation from Shorter. A similar environment comes out of "Slow Bird." On these numbers you are experiencing well-mannered jazz of the highest quality. None of the synthetic gloop that kills all "smooth jazz" albums no matter how well-played, this album is as organic as a vine. As glorious as these tracks are, however, the instrumentals are eclipsed by the impact vocal numbers
Corinne Bailey Rae does a fine job on "River", in fact her girlish voice resembles that Mitchell wielded back in the day. She does a more convincing "Joni Mitchell" than Joni Mitchell does on "Tea Leaf Prophesy" whose voice has gained a glorious patina. Her cadence is dead-on, playing the lyrics as a counterpoint instrument, cocksure and naked at the same time. You may have some anti-hippy bias against her, or maybe some girl that rebuked you years ago was really into her, but Joni Mitchell was then and still is kind of a badass. She's no Tina Turner, mind you, but I still wouldn't cross her.
All comers are knocked out, however, by the graveled God voice of Leonard Cohen on the album close "The Jungle Line." It reminds me of Charles Mingus' "Chill of Death" narration on his 1971 masterwork Let My Children Hear Music. Mitchell herself collaborated with Mingus in 1979 on her cataclysmic fusion of pop and jazz and all things in between, simply titled Mingus, and Hancock was one of the many jazz titans that participated in those sessions. The song itself was the synth 'n' tribal drumming lynchpin her 1975 The Hissing of Summer Lawns album, but with Cohen's soul-deep hipster-patois narration and Hancock's sly piano riffs, this number is the one that brings this album together. It ties up the jazz reverence, the pop immediacy, the persistence of Poetry into a tight bundle that one can take up on their trek into the wilderness.
Photo 1967: Syrell Sapznick from herbiehancock.com