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River: The Joni Letters (Verve) Print-ready version

by Michael E. Ross
Jazziz
January 2008

Herbie Hancock, a musical shape-shifter if there ever was one, has been changing his colors for two generations now, from his early days as a prodigy of the piano trafficking in the hard-bop Blue Note heyday to his more recent associations with rock and pop figures (reinventing the funk genre along the way).

Likewise, Joni Mitchell began her career as a folk singer investing that music with a bittersweet, feminine poetics it never really had before. Eventually, she worked with jazz talents - Charles Mingus among them - as she broadened her musical palette to embrace the improvisation native to the form. The doyenne of Woodstock gravitated to the supper club.

Sooner or later, you just knew they had to meet up. In River: The Joni Letters, Hancock's spirited love letter to Mitchell and her music, Mitchell's melodies are refigured, often brilliantly, by Hancock and a host of talents whose vocal range speaks well of Mitchell's own.

This release recalls Possibilities, the 2005 album that found Hancock working with disparate vocal talents (Christina Aguilera, Joss Stone, Annie Lennox) in a survey of songs by other popular contemporary artists. The songs on River - ranging from Norah Jones' torchy rendition of "Court and Spark" to Tina Turner's treatment of "Edith and the Kingpin" to Corinne Bailey Rae's sweetly expressive version of the title track, and more - gain a fresh interpretation under the guidance of Hancock the master.

Working with longtime fellow traveler Wayne Shorter and bandmates Dave Holland, Vinnie Colaiuta and Lionel Loueke, Hancock breaks down Joni Mitchell songs you only thought you knew, with interpretations you probably never imagined. Get your ears around the world-weary rasp of Leonard Cohen on "The Jungle Line," for instance.

"River," Mitchell's evocative tale of a melancholy Christmas, is especially affecting. Bailey Rae, voice almost childlike, is ably supported by the band, whose nuances (and Shorter's subtle sax shadings) lift the recognizable melody into a realm of thoughtfulness only hinted at. And "Amelia," Mitchell's tribute to the vanished aviator Amelia Earhart and what Mitchell once described as "the sweet loneliness of solitary travel," gains a moving interpretation by Brazilian singer Luciana Souza.

Hearing these other powerful voices in tribute to Joni Mitchell, it's a little startling when, on "Tea Leaf Prophecy," there's Joni herself: The singular timeless voice, rueful and wise and ever romantic, revealing her knack for gently crowding a lyric into a passage in a way that perfectly reflects the pace of a private conversation, a poem between two people.

This is the voice many grew up with in their days of patchouli and incense. This is music - translated by singers for our time and a pianist for all time - that promises to leave today's listeners spellbound.

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