Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Herbie Hancock keeps on Exploring.

Lovers of jazz will need no introduction to Herbie Hancock. Maverick pianist from the days of the Miles Davis quintet, preferred keyboardist of the Davis fusion years and central energy of the seminal funk-jazz crossover album Head Hunters. Herbie Hancock has never been afraid to experiment with forms and genres, to explore the possibilities inherent in different musics. However fans of Joni Mitchell may not be so well acquainted with his work. Though Joni has never been an artist to shy away from incorporating elements of jazz into her folk and rock idiom she has never quite made the step from those idioms to jazz.. All of which makes the new Herbie Hancock recording, River: The Joni Letters an intriguing listen.

For this album Herbie Hancock has assembled an eclectic mix of musicians. Saxophonist Wayne Shorter, his fellow traveller from the fusion years, bassist Dave Holland, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, and west-African guitarist Lionel Loueke. There are also appearances by a number of leading luminaries, Tina Turner, Corinne Bailey Rae, Luciana Souza, Norah Jones and Leonard Cohen. Mitchell herself guests on a track.

Projects like this can go astray, fall between the contrasting drives of their respective genres. Yet it is to Hancock’s credit that this album delivers. It manages an adroit balance between accessibly and improvisation without sacrificing musical integrity. It plays with Hancock’s jazzier instincts and the limitations of the rock and folk idiom. It elaborates on the subtlety of Joni Mitchell’s melodies and provides a sophisticated setting for her often quite excellent lyrics. It manages to be neither a Joni Mitchell album nor a Herbie Hancock album. Instead it occupies a space somewhere between the two.

That is not to say it is without flaws. The title track, The River, comes over a little too sweet. Punching under its weight. Corrine Bailey Rae’s vocals sound to my ears somewhat girlish, smothering the ironical longing of the lyrics; Also, Norah Jones’s vocals on the opening track, Court and the Spark, appear at times to get lost, to sink below the music. And the final track, one of two bonus tracks, A Case of You, while infectious and cross referencing Afro-Pop, folk and R&B could be considered superfluous.

Stand-out tracks are Nefertiti, (a classic Wayne Shorter piece), Luciana Souza’s reading of Amelia, (melancholy, rich and warm all at once), All I Want, (performed as a true jazz-spiritual), Edith and the Kingpin, (Tina Turner on a song that lets her voice show its range and capabilities), and Joni Mitchell herself on The Tea-Leaf Prophecy. Special mention should be made of Leonard Cohen’s reading the of The Jungle Line. I approached this with trepidation having read that Cohen did not sing but recite the lyrics. However, despite his gravely, melancholy delivery, this track works very well. Just voice and piano, the piano returning again and again to the lower registers in an almost delta blues manner, and the voice, as would befit a man who is a published poet, ringing the nuances and levels of meaning from of the words.

This is not a jazz album in the purist sense. Neither is it a rock or folk album. What it is, is an album of contemporary adult music. Performed skilfully, with elegance and in a spirit of exploration. Those who criticise Herbie Hancock’s flirtations with popular music should consider that in many ways he is being true to the roots of jazz. A music that, (before it entered the universities and museums) was a popular music and never denied its relationship with popular forms of self-expression.

This is an interesting and successful recording. It begs the question what further such projects could produce. A collaboration with Tina Turner, Luciana Souza or even Leonard Cohen?

River: The Joni Letters, is well worth having. A enjoyable addition to any collection for those who love music.

Copyright (C) Peter Millington Oct 2007

Herbie Hancock. River:The Joni Letters