Against the Fable of One True World: Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters

By Daniel Garrett

Herbie Hancock, River: The Joni Letters
Produced and Arranged by Larry Klein and Herbie Hancock
Verve Music Group, 2007

Sometimes after walking in Manhattan late at night, a bit melancholy, though enjoying the faces, the buildings, the lights, I would stroll into a downtown music store and put on head phones at one of the listening stations and hear some of the songs on pianist Herbie Hancock’s 2005 album Possibilities: I liked the songs on it featuring Christina Aguilera (“A Song for You”), Annie Lennox (“Hush, Hush, Hush”), and Jonny Lang with Joss Stone (“When Love Comes to Town”).  Herbie Hancock, who began playing the piano when he was seven, has long found ways of combining his own musical sophistication with popular taste.  His recordings include Empyrean Isles (1964), Maiden Voyage (1965), Head Hunters (1973), Future Shock (1983), Jazz Africa (1986), The New Standard (1995), Gershwin’s World (1998), and much more, including work with innovators such as Miles Davis and Stevie Wonder, and scores for Blow-up and Round Midnight.  Hancock has been friends with Joni Mitchell, another music master, for years; and River: The Joni Letters is his exploration of, and tribute to, her work: Joni Mitchell’s oeuvre includes Song to a Seagull (1968), Clouds (1969), Ladies of the Canyon (1970), Blue (1971), Court and Spark (1974), The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975), Hejira (1976), Mingus (1979), Wild Things Run Fast (1982), Dog Eat Dog (1985), Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm (1988), Night Ride Home (1991), and on and on until the very recent Shine (2007).  “Hancock comes to these songs with uncommon sensitivity and understanding,” admitted Martin Johnson, writing in a (August 24, 2007) New York magazine article otherwise skeptical about some of Hancock’s recent work.

On Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters, a leisurely opening with piano and drums precedes Norah Jones’s entrance—her voice low, her diction nearly southern American (soft, rounded, sweet) in Joni Mitchell’s song “Court and Spark,” one of the compositions pianist Herbie Hancock performs on River: The Joni Letters with his colleagues, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, bassist Dave Holland, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, and guitarist Lionel Loueke.  (The Brooklyn-born Jones, whose albums include Come Away with Me, Feels Like Home, and Not Too Late, did spend part of her childhood in Texas.)  Shorter offers bursts of sound—a broken rhythm that perks up the ears—in “Court and Spark,” a song in which the band’s musical interplay suggests not only exploration but evolution, and when Norah Jones begins the last verse that seems a resolution.

Edith and the Kingpin” is performed with Tina Turner, whose dryly expressive voice has authority and mystique, with strength and even tension that hold the lines together: the iconic Turner preserves the narrative and is a the same time responsive to the music, giving one of her most nuanced performances.

What jazz seems to do—elsewhere, and here in “Both Sides Now,” “Sweet Bird,” “Solitude,” and “Nefertiti”—is to return us to experience itself, that is to present time, to perception, to contemplation.  The sound of the moment is what we hear—fleeting—and if an impression of what we’ve heard remains and connects with what we hear next, some meaning seems to have been achieved.  Jazz requires attention, close listening, and if and when it rewards our attention, we feel pleasure—and when it does not, there is frustration, even anger.  The instrumental performance of “Both Sides Now” is contemplative, delicate.

Corinne Bailey Rae’s voice can reach as high as Joni Mitchell’s could on the original interpretation of the song “River,” and Corinne Bailey Rae’s voice is charming, eccentric, young, and she adds something girlish to the song, giving it a new sparkle.  Bailey Rae’s singular phrasing works well, though this is not one of the more adventurous pieces of the band.

Joni Mitchell’s strangely heavy chords remain recognizable in a lovely instrumental piece, “Sweet Bird,” and Wayne Shorter’s playing therein is melodic.

Joni Mitchell’s voice is low, rough, expressive, her rhythm slower than on the original version of “Tea Leaf Prophecy,” and that means the words are easier to hear—and they drop into one’s consciousness like rocks into open water—and one notices how Mitchell mixes the profound and the mundane, creating a picture of a believable world.  (Perhaps I should write: “creating a picture of one of many possible believable worlds,” as the myth that only one vision is true, or only one sound authentic or germane, has been used to sabotage Joni Mitchell—and jazz musicians—and the works of other artists and thinkers.  Mitchell and Hancock are two musicians who do not limit themselves to one music or one world.)

In performing “Solitude” by Edgar DeLange, Duke Ellington, and Irving Mills—and Wayne Shorter’s “Nefertiti,” made known by Miles Davis—Hancock invokes jazz tradition, to which he is aligning these songs of Joni Mitchell (Hancock’s musical lineage might be traced from Ellington through Oscar Peterson, George Shearing, Clare Fischer, Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane, but that would be a narrow reading, as Hancock’s investigation of funk and other music caused as much controversy as Mitchell’s collaboration with jazz musician Charles Mingus.  Mitchell was quoted on Miles Davis’s work by Leonard Feather as saying that there was a point when “Nefertiti and In a Silent Way became my all-time favorite records in just any field of music,” in DownBeat, September 6, 1979.)  Hancock’s achievement, like that of Mitchell, is unique.

Luciana Souza’s softly Spanish-accented voice does not pierce as Mitchell used to do on “’Amelia,” but there is humanity in Souza’s voice, a humanity that grounds Mitchell’s stranger speculations (such as her confiding that it’s possible she hasn’t loved at all, that she has kept her head in the clouds amid icy thoughts).

The last piece, “The Jungle Line,” features a grave recitation by deep-voiced Leonard Cohen, returning music to poetry, a music lilting and lucid, the luminous music of Hancock and Mitchell.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon, wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader.  Daniel Garrett’s work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics.