River: The Joni Letters
Produced and arranged by Larry Klein and Herbie Hancock (Piano), with Wayne Shorter (Soprano and Tenor Saxophone), Dave Holland (Bass), Vinnie Colaiuta (Drums), Lionel Loueke (Guitar)
Herbie Hancock continues with the tradition of classic collaborations that he orchestrated with Possibilities (2005) and Gershwin’s World (1998). This time out Herbie’s effort is titled River: The Joni Letters. River is a choreographed tribute to Joni Mitchell’s songs as letters of rich jazz visual montages.
River: The Joni Letters is ten smartly chosen tracks, six vocal tracks with stellar vocalists and four instrumental interludes. Interspersing instrumentals with the six main vocal tracks is a stroke of genius. It’s like eating your way through to the rich layers of creamy filling found in a multilayered cake. The first two instrumentals are “Both Sides Now” and “Sweet Bird”; done as new improvisations. We are also treated to two classic jazz numbers, “Solitude” (Edgar De Lange-Duke Ellington-Irving Mills) and “Nefertiti” Miles Davis (Wayne Shorter).
“Nefertiti”is written and performed by premier saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Shorter’s saxophone accents takes the recording to a higher plane. When I was researching the significance of including the composition “Nefertiti”, I learned it was originally performed by the second and last Miles Davis Quintet. “Nefertiti” had a significant influence on Joni Mitchell’s Hejira album which clearly established her jazz singer\songwriter potential. Therein lies the intersection point.
Norah Jones opens the River recording with the tune, “Court and Spark” riding in on the wings of Herbie Hancock’s piano accompaniment. Norah Jones is ideally suited to begin this musical journey with her present state leadership role in contemporary jazz. Ms. Jones swirls soft, eloquent vocals like clouds in a scenic painting as Herbie’s playing moves her along the sky. The duo is sweetly accented by Wayne Shorter’s signature phrasing on tenor saxophone. His saxophone ignites the spark for Norah and Herbie’s whimsical jazzy courtship.
Tina Turner greets us with her sultry voice accenting the song “Edith and the Kingpin”, from Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns. The listener is immediately drawn into a cinematic tale of romantic intrigue. One can visualize the coat draped over the shoulders of the big man as he enters the club. Immediately we intermingle with this underworld societies’ captivation with a powerful man and his women. Tina’s warm and soothing sisterly vocals narrate the sensual dance as it weaves the story in front of our very eyes.
One by one they bring
His renegade stories to her
His crimes and his glories to her
In challenge they look on
Women he has taken grow old too soon
He tilts their tired faces
Gently to the spoon
“River” the title track is performed by Corrine Bailey Rae as her voice possesses the sound of soft snow falling outside your window. One would swear that Corrine Bailey Rae and the musicians playing along have done this song many evenings together in a posh nightclub for regular clientele. They fit together harmoniously with a relaxed, familiar sound.
Joni Mitchell, appears next as if on cue, with the saga, “Tea Leaf Prophecy” from Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm. Here we have a song about the World War II era replete with the self-reflective consciousness of a woman who states repeatedly, “she says she’s leaving but she don’t go”. How many of us in this life have made that same claim about wanting to escape from our own meager existences?
Bossa Nova starlet Luciana Souza performs “Amelia” a song about Amelia Earhart. Her vocal stylizing is hip, which embellishes this song with a warmth, color and ambience. http://jonimitchell.com/musician/song.cfm?id=Amelia
Leonard Cohen folk music, poet laureate, (I’m reading his book of poems and essays, Book of Longing right now) ends the recording with his reading of “The Jungle Line”. His gravely narrative voice resonates throughout this song in a unique bohemia like poetic reading. I find it very appropriate that Herbie Hancock and Leonard Cohen chose this song about Henri Rousseau, the French painter. http://jonimitchell.com/research/g_entry.cfm?id=35
Joni Mitchell is a painter first, a musician second. Her rich tapestries of artistic song enrapture us completely as Herbie Hancock accents Joni’s jazz letters perfectly.