Featured Guest Vocalists - Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Tina Turner, Norah Jones, Corinne Bailey Rae and Luciana Souza
Joni Mitchell and Herbie Hancock, along with Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Pablo Picasso, and other great artists of our time, share an incessant and profound creative restlessness. They each have always had the desire and need to break fresh ground with each note played or stroke of the brush.
It was exactly this kind of curiosity which motivated Davis to hire Hancock in 1963 to be a part of, along with Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams, arguably one of the most important groups of musicians of the twentieth century. It was in fact Miles who told Hancock to "never finish anything."
Hancock, like Joni Mitchell, has gone on to explore many different genres and mediums to express his incessant curiosity, working in the context of jazz, electronic music, funk, orchestral, and film music.
Hancock first worked with Joni Mitchell on the iconic singer/songwriter's Mingus record, an album comprised of collaborations between Mitchell and the great bassist and composer Charles Mingus.
Together with Wayne Shorter, Hancock was part of a small group with which Mitchell tried to craft a new "conversational" approach to coupling lyrics with instrumental jazz.
"At this point in my career," Hancock says, "I want to do something that reaches into the lives and hearts of people." For "River", Hancock enlisted producer/ arranger/ bassist Larry Klein (Mitchell's long-time producer and creative partner, who has also produced albums by Madeleine Peyroux and Shawn Colvin among many others), to help him go deeply into Mitchell's body of work to select songs that Hancock and Klein could adapt to a genre-less and conversational musical approach, while trying to portray the breadth of Mitchell's gift as a musician and writer.
To add another dimension to their picture of Mitchell's musical world, they also included two compositions that were important to her musical development, Wayne Shorter's asymmetrical masterpiece "Nefertiti", first recorded by Hancock and Shorter on Miles Davis' classic album of the same name, and Duke Ellington's prescient standard "Solitude".
Hancock and Klein worked for months, carefully reading through Joni's lyrics and music, eventually paring their list down to thirteen songs that they hoped comprised a panoramic view of the poet's work. They then assembled a group of the top musicians in the world, including the incomparable Wayne Shorter on soprano and tenor sax, the brilliant bassist and composer Dave Holland, (a musical cohort of Hancock and Shorter's who shares their adventurousness, as well as the Miles Davis imprimatur), drummer Vinnie Colaiuta (a recent member of Hancock's band as well as having played extensively with Mitchell and Sting), and Benin-born guitarist Lionel Loueke, also a member of Hancock's band.
They went on to craft arrangements for songs like the often recorded "Both Sides Now", and "Sweet Bird" (from Mitchell's overlooked classic The Hissing of Summer Lawns) that transformed the songs into lyrical and elegant instrumental tone poems, devoid of the trappings of conventional jazz records. "We wanted to create a new vocabulary, a new way of speaking in a musical sense," Hancock says. Klein adds, "we used the words to guide us. All of the music emanated from the poetry." They were also fortunate to be able to cast the vocal songs with some of the greatest singers in the music world.
Joni herself sings the autobiographical musing on childhood "The Tea Leaf Prophecy", Tina Turner turns the beautiful prose of "Edith And The Kingpin" into a timeless piece of song-noir, Norah Jones delivers the wistful classic "Court and Spark", Corinne Bailey Rae turns the mournful Christmas classic "River" into an innocent and optimistic poem of bittersweet romance, Brazilian-born Luciana Souza becomes a dark third voice to Hancock and Shorter on "Amelia", and in a stark and cinematic closer, Leonard Cohen recites the brilliant and surreal lyric to "The Jungle Line" as Hancock provides film score-like improvised accompaniment.
River: The Joni Letters represents a journey into a new world in Hancock's search for fresh ground. A world of words.
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