Herbie 'n' Joni: a lyrical journey

by Andrew Gilbert
Mercury News
November 8, 2007


Herbie Hancock never had much interest in words.

In a career spanning five decades, he's been one of the world's most eloquent and influential pianists and composers, an innovator in jazz, funk and R&B. But even when interpreting American Songbook standards, like those on his Grammy-winning 1998 album "Gershwin's World," Hancock didn't pay attention to lyrics. Until he decided to explore the music of his longtime friend Joni Mitchell.

His latest album "River: The Joni Letters" (Verve) is a gripping and unexpected safari through Mitchell's sumptuous book of tunes, a journey on which he's accompanied by several singers, including Tina Turner on a noir-ish, chill-inducing version of "Edith and the Kingpin," Norah Jones on a melancholic rendition of "Court and Spark" and Mitchell herself on "Tea Leaf Prophecy," a song inspired by her parents' courtship.

Guest vocalist

Hancock performs on Saturday at San Francisco's Masonic Auditorium as part of the San Francisco Jazz Festival, with bassist Nathan East, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, guitarist Lionel Loueke and special guest vocalist Sonya Kitchell, who first performed with Hancock last year at the Sonoma Jazz Festival (shortly after releasing her first album, "Words Came Back to Me," at age 17). Cuban piano virtuoso Gonzalo Rubalcaba opens the concert with a solo recital.

"Before, I never paid attention to the lyrics," says Hancock, 67, from his office in Los Angeles. "I'd look at the melodies, look at the harmonies and reharmonize things. I'd move things around as I felt them, without any attention to the lyrics."

With Mitchell's music, Hancock knew he had to develop a new approach. "She's a poet before she's a songwriter," Hancock says. "The words are the engines that drive her melodies. I thought, if I'm going to do justice to Joni and her songs, I have to make the lyrics the primary focus. That's really what I tried to do, and it's changed me. Now, if I have to do a song, I know to ask about the lyrics and what they mean as another element I get to add to my palette."

Hancock first collaborated with Mitchell on "Mingus," her controversial 1979 homage to the legendary jazz bassist-composer Charles Mingus, and she performed at Berkeley's Greek Theatre that year with Hancock, percussionist Don Alias, drummer Tony Williams and electric bassist Jaco Pastorius, who was something of a muse for Mitchell. Long influenced by jazz, her music became increasingly improvisational during this period. While "Mingus" alienated many fans who longed for Mitchell's return to the hit-making days of "Blue" and "Court and Spark," she insistently followed her own creative muse.

In many ways her influence seems greater today than ever. Several generations of singer-songwriters have come of age drinking deeply from her seemingly bottomless well, while jazz musicians such as Diana Krall, Cassandra Wilson and Dianne Reeves have interpreted her songs. And Mitchell isn't done yet. In September, she released "Shine," her first album of new material in almost a decade.

Other tributes

Another recent album, Nonesuch's "A Tribute to Joni Mitchell," features a dazzling cast of artists performing her songs, including Björk, Prince, Annie Lennox, Elvis Costello and Caetano Veloso. Last month, producer Paul Ingles started broadcasting a two-hour radio documentary "The Emergence of Joni Mitchell" (which can be downloaded from www.paulingles.com/mitchell.html). And last week, Mitchell performed at a glittering gala celebration of Hancock in Los Angeles.

Hancock couldn't have picked a better creative partner for "River" than producer Larry Klein, who started his career as a jazz bassist, touring and recording with trumpet great Freddie Hubbard. Klein met Mitchell in 1982 while working on her 1982 album "Wild Things Run Fast," and they were married shortly afterward. They divorced while working on 1994's "Turbulent Indigo" but have remained good friends, and Klein has gained a reputation as a sensitive and savvy producer in recent years through acclaimed albums by Julia Fordham, Madeleine Peyroux and San Francisco's Vienna Teng.

Klein and Hancock brought a cinematic sensibility to the project, carefully casting the tunes featuring a vocalist, while arranging the instrumental pieces with careful attention to the song's structure. Most important, they dissected Mitchell's lyrics, with Klein offering his unique insight into her songs.

"Herbie's not used to listening to words," Klein says. "He would hear the words more as sounds than as poetic content. So we'd go over the song, literally speaking the lyric. If it was a song that I had some personal insight into, I would relate these kinds of things."

Hancock says, "We went so far as to type out lyrics and give them to the musicians in the studio before we recorded each of the songs. We'd discuss them in the control booth, discuss the meaning of the lyrics, the environment of the lyrics, the characters and anything else we thought might be pertinent to the meaning of the song. We'd let that marinate for a minute and then go in and record the song."

Hancock's repertoire

Hancock won't focus exclusively on the Mitchell material at the San Francisco concert. He's got a vast repertoire of standards and classic original compositions that he introduced in the mid-1960s with Miles Davis and under his own name on recordings for Blue Note and with his groups Headhunters and Mwandishi in the '70s.

His latest band, which centers on the brilliant guitarist Lionel Loueke, is particularly versatile. Born and raised in the small West African nation of Benin, Loueke is a brilliant player and gifted vocalist with a pure, sweet falsetto.

"His musical palette is so broad and varied," Hancock says, "he can play in any musical setting and find something appropriate for it. He's into acoustic-style playing as well as far-out electronics. He's got pedals with a lot of different effects that he doesn't over-use. I really respect his musical taste. He's not afraid to explore new territory and incorporate influences from his roots in Africa."

He's a player Mitchell would love herself, and who is likely to further expand Hancock's fascinating foray into her music.

Where: Masonic Auditorium, 1111 California St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Tickets: $25-$87
Call: (866) 920-5299, or see sfjazz.org

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