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Playing Joni's music again Print-ready version

by Don Heckman
Los Angeles Times
June 12, 2008

HERBIE HANCOCK'S performance at the Playboy Jazz Festival on Sunday comes in the midst of a bountiful year. Yes, the veteran jazz pianist/composer's Hollywood Hills home glistens with an impressive collection of Grammys, an Oscar and other awards. But Hancock has never received a statuette with as much cachet as the Album of the Year Grammy he got on Feb. 10 for his recording, "River: The Joni Letters." On Sunday, his Playboy Jazz set will feature numbers from Hancock's acclaimed album, as well as a rare live rendering of his 1983 hit, "Rockit," and guest appearances by singers Sonya Kitchell and Amy Keys, bassist Marcus Miller and DJ C-Minus. We sat down with Hancock last week, fresh off his Brazilian tour.

You were at the Hollywood Bowl's Playboy Jazz Festival when it began in 1979.

I was. I played both days. One with Chick Corea, and the other, if you can believe it, with Joni Mitchell and Michael Brecker. Funny thing is I don't remember what we played, but it must have been tunes from her "Mingus" record, which I also did with her.

So this is a 30th anniversary for you and Joni at Playboy as well.

Right. Playing Joni Mitchell's music again. But in very different circumstances.

What was the genesis of "River: The Joni Letters"?

I hadn't done a studio record for a long time, and I wanted to do something . . . a little softer, something that wouldn't be demanding of an audience, but that wouldn't be pandering, either. Then Verve's A&R person, Dahlia Ambach Caplin said, "I know what respect you have for Joni Mitchell, and that you're good friends. Would you consider doing a recording of the music of Joni Mitchell?" And I said, "Wow, that's a cool idea!"

Was it challenging? Her songs are powerfully linked to her verbal images -- not the kind of material one ordinarily sees on a jazz recording.

Right. Her melodies are based on the meaning of the words. I knew I had to figure out as many ways as I could to focus on words, because it's not something I'm used to focusing on.

Did you, in your wildest dreams, ever imagine receiving the Album of the Year Grammy?

The Grammy? I didn't even imagine the nomination.

But given the other nominees, you had to be considered a long shot. How did you deal with that?

I started thinking what would be the purpose of my receiving that Grammy. If it's just for my own ego to get another Grammy, that's nice. I like getting Grammys. Who wouldn't? But I already had 10 Grammys. And I never did make music to get Grammys. You don't get into jazz for reasons like that. And then it became clear to me what a great mark it would be for jazz and for the jazz community. It would call attention to it and it would be encouraging to younger musicians. So I started chanting three hours a day, seeing images of myself receiving the award.

And it worked?

Well, I got the award.

Without experiencing any award night butterflies?

I wouldn't say that. But my determination had gotten so strong by that time that I didn't even see anyone else nominated in the category. Which was really odd. But then Quincy Jones called my name, and at first it didn't even register. Then, when I went up on stage, it felt really surreal. I couldn't feel my feet, I couldn't feel anything. People were applauding and screaming. But I didn't feel alone. I felt like the whole jazz community was with me.

Any possibility that Joni might make a surprise appearance during your set at the Jazz Festival?

I wish. But she's busy with that ballet she's doing. But you never know. And wouldn't that be something? Both of us, on the same stage again, 30 years later.

Maybe you should start chanting, and visualizing it.

There's a thought.

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