LYRICAL TONE POEMS
"River: The Joni Letters"
Herbie Hancock (Verve)
Joni Mitchell has been reclusive in recent years, disgusted with the music business, among other things. She also had some problems with her vocal cords, although she overcame them to sing dusky versions of jazz standards and rearrangements of her old songs for the albums "Both Sides Now" (a minor masterpiece, 2000) and "Travelogue" (2002). There weren't any new songs from her, though, and this master songwriter said she'd rather concentrate on her painting.
A Canadian ballet featuring her music eventually offered inspiration, though, as did the environment around her house north of Vancouver, a longtime refuge from Los Angeles. The result is "Shine," the 63-year-old Mitchell's first album of new songs in a decade (released, like Paul McCartney's latest, on the Starbucks label). It brims with her characteristic sophistication - rhythmic, harmonic, lyrical. Unfortunately, it has a hermetic sound, due to Mitchell orchestrating the album herself with the sort of digital synthesizers that film composers use for their demos. It sounds like the promising but cheap blueprint for what could have been a more richly, organically realized studio project.
That isn't to say there isn't lovely carbon-based musicianship on the disc. Mitchell plays piano on most tracks, guitar on one. Saxophone, percussion and big-sky pedal-steel guitar color many songs. But the synths are jarring, even more so for hinting at beauties that real strings, reeds and brass might have conjured. The songs themselves have a compelling melancholy, though, as she sings of nature's poetry and man's heedlessness. The title track is a world-going-to-hell number whose playful irony only helps Mitchell's points stick.
As a keynote, Mitchell reprises her environmentally prescient "Big Yellow Taxi" from 40 years ago, lacing it with accordion. And "Strong and Wrong," her take on a U.S. foreign policy that feels unchanged from the Vietnam War to now, makes easy sense on the wings of a luminous melody. Throughout, Mitchell's voice sounds wonderful, rich with character. Her vocals also appear on jazz pianist Herbie Hancock's imaginative tribute album, "River: The Joni Letters." She sings "Tea Leaf Prophecy" (from her 1988 LP, "Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm") with the smoky tone and sleight-of-hand phrasing of a vintage jazz singer.
Working closely with Mitchell's longtime collaborator and ex-husband Larry Klein, Hancock has crafted a strikingly deep tribute to her songwriting. He drafted a sterling band - saxophonist Wayne Shorter (Hancock's mate in Miles Davis's great `60s quintet), plus bassist Dave Holland (another Davis alum), ex-Sting drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and Benin-born guitarist Lionel Loueke. Hancock eschews jazz-session cliches in the arrangements, creating free-floating tone poems of Mitchell's songs.
Vocally, Hancock is also joined by Norah Jones (a voluptuous if slightly mannered "Court and Spark"), as well as Brazilian singer, and Klein's current wife, Luciana Souza ("Amelia," not really her thing). British pop chanteuse Corinne Bailey Rae does just all right by a great Christmas song, "River," though it's far better than the too-sweet James Taylor version on Nonesuch's half-baked Mitchell tribute disc from earlier this year. Leonard Cohen, with the voice of a sage, recites the words of "The Jungle Line" over Hancock's piano tracery. Best, and most surprising, is Tina Turner, who sings "Edith and the Kingpin" as a noir-cabaret tour-de-force.
The instrumental numbers are the true highlights, though, including spacious, obliquely re-harmonized versions of "Both Sides Now" and "Sweet Bird." In a nod to Mitchell's jazz influences, Hancock leads just the rhythm section in a piquant rendition of Duke Ellington's "Solitude" (which she first heard Billie Holiday sing). And the full band re-imagines a Shorter classic from the Davis days, "Nefertiti," the serpentine tune unfolding like a ribbon in a breeze, elusive but beautiful.