Herbie Hancock - River: The Joni Letters

Pianist Herbie Hancock's River: The Joni Letters is the eleventh Grammy-winning album in the legendary musician's diverse and long-ranging career. It was a shock to the pop music world for what is essentially a jazz album to win over the recordings of typical pop/rock stars, but the music on River represents a high level of sophistication and craftsmanship while remaining accessible and enjoyable to the masses.

River is a tribute to Joni Mitchell, whose pure voice and colorful lyrics lifted her to iconic status in American folk and popular music. In the 1970s, Mitchell began to experiment with jazz concepts, featuring the drums and accompanying instruments like trumpets and saxophones, and singing over grooves with jazz rhythmic feels. Each track on River is a contemplative interpretation of some of Joni Mitchell's jazz-influenced songs and features such classics as "Both Sides Now" and "Court and Spark". The album features a host of great talented singers such as Norah Jones, Tina Turner and even Joni makes an appearance.

My review of the sonic attributes of this recording refers to the 24 bit 96 khz digital file downloaded from HDtracks.com.

My favorite track on this album is "Both Sides Now". It seems to set the album's elegant spirit and sound. It opens with Herbie playing solo piano. His ten foot Steinway materializes into the room and sounds to scale with just a hint of sparkle just as a Steinway should. Bass and drums come into the mix a minute or so into the track. Dave Holland's bass is big, full and rich and portrays a sense of woodiness that is often lacking in acoustic bass recordings. Drums are crisp and cymbals have a natural metallic shimmer to them. "Both Sides Now" is one of my "go to" tracks. It's one of those tracks where everything comes together, great recording, fabulous playing and wonderful music and although it originally had lyrics, this instrumental version doesn't need them.

Not all the tracks are instrumental and several prominent singers make appearances including Joni herself. The opening track, "Court and Spark", begins in a somewhat abstract mode, but ultimately settles into a soft groove for Norah Jones'. Her voice is beautifully present and somewhat relaxed. The recording is a lot like her debut studio album, Come Away With Me that made her so popular with audiophiles and music lovers alike.

Tina Turner follows Norah Jones with a reserved performance on "Edith and the Kingpin," from the highly acclaimed Joni Mitchel album The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Corinne Bailey Rae turns in a sweet and soulful "river".

Two non-Mitchell instrumentals-Duke Ellington's classic "Solitude" and Shorter's "Nefertiti"-really builds a bridge between Mitchell and the jazz world. "Nefertiti" is especially notable. The original, mid-1960s Miles Davis Quintet version was vibrant but on this version drummer Wayne Shorter plays more intuitively and lets Hancock take the lead on the tune's improvisational core. Once again the sound is impeccable and recorded so that the listener can easily pick out whatever instrument they like from the layers of sound.

The album closes with Leonard Cohen handling the vocal on "The Jungle Line". Cohen is more speaking than singing but being more of a poet he makes it work. Cohen's voice is deep and recorded to emphasize the chestiness and velvet gravel of his voice. Hancock and Cohen create a beautiful counterpoint that takes "The Jungle Line" to a new and higher level and establishes an unmistakable debt to Joni Mitchell. I highly recommend this recording for both it's superb recording and wonderful musical arrangements.

Review By - David Jensen
Dec. 13, 2013

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