Herbie Hancock is a musical chameleon. Although he is primarily known as a virtuoso jazz keyboardist, Hancock has never been afraid to venture outside of the jazz world in a career that has often stretched far beyond the boundaries of the genre. This sense of both adventurousness — and what would appear at least to be more than a little bit of musical restlessness as well — has led Hancock in a number of different directions over the years.
In the seventies, Hancock briefly enjoyed broader mainstream success by releasing more funk-fusion based albums like Headhunters and Thrust, both of which were commercial hits. He repeated this again in the eighties by collaborating with turntablist Grandmixer DST on the early hip hop crossover smash "Rockit," from the album Future Shock. Just last year, Hancock once again did the genre-busting act by releasing the album Possibilities, an album of collaborative efforts with pop stars ranging from John Mayer and Annie Lennox to Christina Aguilera and Sting.
Like the Possibilities album, Hancock's new River: The Joni Letters is also an album of collaborations with famous pop stars like Norah Jones and Tina Turner and some not-so-famous. However, unlike the former album, the sound here couldn't be further away from pop, as Hancock turns his musical ear back towards jazz to interpet the songs of another musical chameleon, the incomparable Joni Mitchell.
From the first song on this disc, a torchy version of Mitchell's "Court And Spark" with a smoldering vocal by Norah Jones, it becomes clear that what Hancock seeks to capture on this loving tribute is the essence of Mitchell's artistic ingenue. For her own part, Jones is more than up to the task of channeling the jazz-based atmospherics of Mitchell.
Hancock clearly sees Mitchell as more the chanteuse of albums like her jazz-influenced masterpiece The Hissing Of Summer Lawns than the more folk-influenced artist of her earlier years making pop hits like "Big Yellow Taxi." In fact, on one of Mitchell's best-known songs here, "Both Sides Now," Hancock eliminates the vocal altogether. In doing so, Hancock also turns the flowery optimism of the song more inside on itself. Here it is transformed into a more introspective-sounding tone poem, where the instrumentalists are allowed ample room to stretch.
On "Amelia" from Mitchell's Hejira album, Hancock's keyboard flourishes dance around the haunting vocals of Luciana Souza. Tina Turner's vocal on "Edith And The Kingpin" likewise brings the jazz nightclub feel out of the song, as Wayne Shorter blows the tenor sax for all the world like it's last call at closing time. On the one track on this album which stands out like something of a sore thumb — and I don't mean that in a critical way — Leonard Cohen does a dramatic spoken word reading of Mitchell's "The Jungle Line" from the Hissing of Summer Lawns record, accompanied only by Hancock's solo piano.
But not all of the songs from River are actual Joni Mitchell compositions. One of the most compelling tracks here is "Nefertiti," which Hancock and Wayne Shorter first played on the original Miles Davis album which bore the same title. It was a song that is said to have inspired Joni Mitchell's "jazz period" in the late seventies. Here Hancock and Shorter stretch the song even further, reinventing it to sound the way they imagine that Mitchell herself might have first experienced it.
Joni herself shows up at her own party here to contribute the vocal part for her autobiographical song, "Tea Leaf Prophecy." As with the other Mitchell songs here, the song is reinterpeted the way it might be seen through a more traditional jazz set of lenses.
On River, the music being created, while in every way still a form of tribute to Joni, is all about creating colors and shades through improvisation. In many ways, some of Mitchell's best songs are given more room to breathe than they have been at any other time. This makes River, something of a perfect companion piece to Joni Mitchell's own recently released "comeback" album Shine.