Hancock’s Letters to Joni

River - The Joni LettersBefore recording the Joni Mitchell songs that comprise 10 of the 12 tracks* on “River – The Joni Letters,” Herbie Hancock first gathered his fellow musicians — Wayne Shorter on sax, Dave Holland on bass, Vinnie Colaiuta on drums and Lionel Loueke on guitar — and discussed the meaning of the lyrics, the environment of the lyrics in relation to the music. The music they crafted together is a hauntingly beautiful tribute to Joni’s artistry. Herbie’s harmonic sensibilities are bold and imaginative. Jazz artists have never shied away from dissonance, but the way in which Herbie moves fluidly from moments of lucid tonality to restless, dissonant harmony shows his artistic greatness.

The songs span three decades (1968-1998) of Joni’s career. Guest vocalists include Norah Jones, Tina Turner, Corinne Bailey Rae, Luciana Souza, Joni herself, and a recitation by Leonard Cohen. Four of the songs — plus two non-Joni tracks — are presented without vocals. In the instrumental arrangement of “Both Sides Now,” the melody appears three minutes into the song, fragmented and harmonized in unusual ways. It hesitates and gropes through unfamiliar chords, underscoring the final lyric we hear in our heads: “It’s life’s illusions I recall; I really don’t know life at all.”

There are just the right number of moments where the music mimics the lyrics so it feels spontaneous, not forced. In “Edith and the Kingpin,” Tina Turner surprises us with a seductive melisma on the phrase “some mysterious song” and Wayne Shorter follows her words with a sultry, chromatic scale. In “River,” upper register piano flourishes follow the rising phrase “I would teach my feet to fly.”

One of the most intriguing arrangements is the solo piano underneath Leonard Cohen’s recitation of “The Jungle Line.” Herbie takes the recurring four-note motive from the original as a starting point and turns the song into an expanded riff on this one element.

Overall, the mood is mellow and subdued. It’s a late-night-by-the-fireplace or wintry-morning kind of a CD, intimate and introspective. There are riches in the music that will only reveal themselves upon repeated listens, and that’s what exemplifies great art.

*The version of the CD I have from iTunes has two extra songs that are not part of the standard CD. The version of the CD from Amazon has yet two different extra songs.

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