NEW YORK - When Herbie Hancock embarked on making "River: The Joni Letters," his new album out Tuesday based on the music of Joni Mitchell, he quickly found himself treading at once on familiar and unfamiliar ground.
Familiar, because Hancock, the great jazz pianist, has known Mitchell since 1979, when he and saxophonist Wayne Shorter, his friend and fellow alumnus of the classic Miles Davis quintet, teamed up with the singer on a project she was developing with Charles Mingus. Though Mingus passed away that year, causing the album, "Mingus," to come out incomplete, the sessions formed the basis of a friendship that would grow richer over the years. Hancock would later appear on another Mitchell album, the orchestral collection "Both Sides Now," released in 2000.
But unfamiliar at the same time, because in taking on "River," Hancock, who performs at the BeanTown Jazz Festival Friday night, confronted the need to compose and perform music specifically tailored to lyrics - and not just any lyrics, but Mitchell's powerful and idiosyncratic poetry. As Hancock explains, putting the lyric first forced an inversion of the typical jazz instrumentalist's instinct and presented, even to this veteran musical innovator and transgressor of genre boundaries, a new creative challenge.
"It's hard for me to hear lyrics," Hancock says in a conference room at a public-radio station here. "It's a problem that a lot of jazz musicians have. If it's in a song, it's just a sound. I can't really hear it as language, not the English language, anyway. I hear it as part of the musical language. So I have to read it. And I'm reading the words to the songs, I would read one or two lines and go, 'She didn't just say that, did she?' It was so incredible, the stuff that she came up with; the metaphors knock me out."
Hancock's latter-day revelation made him just one of countless artists who have felt the impact of Mitchell's artistry. The Canadian poet's place in the creative pantheon is assured: As much as anyone, she invented the modern singer-songwriter form, while also building a substantial body of work as a painter and filmmaker. A tribute album released by Nonesuch earlier this year testifies to the broad influence of her songbook, with contributors as disparate as Björk, Sufjan Stevens, Caetano Veloso, and Prince.
But "River" is a different type of project. Its six vocalists include Mitchell herself, offering a muted and moving retake of "Tea Leaf Prophecy" dedicated to her late mother. The sound is seamless and unified, thanks to the exceptional band made up of Hancock, Shorter, bassist Dave Holland, guitarist Lionel Loueke, and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta. And the song treatments are neither carbon copies nor deconstructions of the originals, but rather more subtle, almost questioning, interpolations.
The sense of closeness should come as no surprise. The album's producer, Larry Klein, is Mitchell's ex-husband and close collaborator and friend. He and Hancock spent many hours poring over Mitchell's lyrics, selecting songs and guest vocalists and honing every aspect of the record from their privileged vantage point.
Klein was also, Hancock says, his personal guide to Mitchell's lyrics: "Her imagery is incredible, and some of it is pretty deep and hard to get into. I'd have to ask Larry, 'What does she mean by this?' And for the most part, he knew the connections."
"It was great watching him discover that aspect of things," Klein says on the phone from Los Angeles. "Just like it is when you turn someone onto a great book and watch it set off sparks inside them."
Creative affinity between artists like Hancock and Mitchell, with seemingly dichotomous backgrounds in the African-American jazz tradition and the folk-infused strains of rock, need not seem incongruous today. Both are musical legends beyond the limitations of genre, and Mitchell's own jazz work is well regarded. But when they first connected in 1970s Los Angeles, Hancock says, the lines between the jazz crowd and the Laurel Canyon rock set were fairly strictly drawn.
"I had never met her before the Mingus project," he says. "I knew her name, but I never really paid attention to her music. I didn't pay attention to Bob Dylan, to anybody. I was only listening to jazz and classical music. And later on, I noticed that Miles [Davis] was listening to everything. I saw album jackets around his house, and there'd be James Brown, Cream, the Stones. I started to realize it must be cool to be open, if Miles is open, and he was the epitome of cool."
The Mingus project gave Hancock the chance to follow Davis's example, and that of Shorter, who was hip to Mitchell, having worked with her on her 1977 album "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter." "I realized that she was a trouper," Shorter says, "one of the people willing to go out there and not worry about losing her job."
Hancock adds, "I was really surprised to find that Joni wanted the kind of looseness and freedom that was more characteristic of what Wayne and I were into. She was very comfortable in that environment when she sang, and I said, 'Wow, I didn't expect this!'"
That experience kindled a friendship among these players and their spouses that grew throughout the 1980s, with much of the socializing taking place at a now-defunct restaurant on Melrose Avenue with a period-piece name, the Nucleus Nuance. "We'd all hang out there," Klein says. "And every New Year's we'd be the band - Herbie, Wayne, Joni, myself, and assorted characters."
Still, Hancock says, Mitchell's body of work remained somewhat mysterious to him. "I was blind in a way to what Joni was doing, even though she was a friend of mine. I mean, I don't expect all my friends to know everything that I'm doing either. But of course, I knew of Joni's great reputation and the reputation of the poetry of her words. And it was really this record, 'River,' where I finally decided to use the opportunity of doing Joni Mitchell's music to thoroughly examine her songs."
As such investigations go, this one is particularly rich, thanks not only to the core partnership of Hancock and Klein, but also to their ability to recruit virtually everyone they wanted.
"The people involved are pretty much our first choices," Klein admits. They include Norah Jones (on "Court and Spark"), Corinne Bailey Rae ("River"), Tina Turner ("Edith and the Kingpin"), and to cap it all off, Leonard Cohen, who closes the album with a spoken-word interpretation of a complicated Mitchell song, "The Jungle Line," with Hancock improvising solo underneath.
As much as any, that song illustrates the shift in approach this album meant for Hancock: Cohen's track was recorded first, requiring Hancock to improvise to a set lyrical exposition. That change of optic, with its implicit surrender of control, is perhaps the greatest compliment that Hancock could pay to Mitchell's work.
"I do it because I really respect Joni," Hancock says. "She's like a hero to me. I consider her a Renaissance woman. I love hanging out with her, conversing with her, and listening to her talk. She talks the same way that she writes the lyrics. I don't think of it as a tribute. She inspires me, so yes, it is a tribute, but that's not the primary motivation. It's more respect for this friend of mine whom I love as a person and I love as an artist."