As a former protégé of Miles Davis and the composer of classics like “Maiden Voyage” and “Cantaloupe Island,” Herbie Hancock has never lacked for jazz cred. He’s also demonstrated pretty major prowess in pop, with instrumental hits like 1973’s “Chameleon” and 1983’s early MTV staple “Rockit.”
Yet in his more recent work, the 67-year-old pianist has failed to take full advantage of his versatility, veering from jazz to pop and back again with less than stellar results. His pop work has been schlocky and stiff, while his jazz recordings have been uncharacteristically distant and cold. Only when Hancock has merged the styles—his approach on the upcoming River: The Joni Letters—has he found success.
At first glance, the current project doesn’t look terribly promising. It’s basically a Joni Mitchell tribute, of which there’ve been many. Her songbook has been plundered by just about everybody. But Hancock comes to these songs with uncommon sensitivity and understanding. He and Mitchell, longtime Angelenos, have been friends for decades and have played on each other’s recordings. Her multiple talents even trump his. “I’ve admired Joni for many years for her genius and for her being a Renaissance woman,” he says. “Her lyrics, poetry, painting. She even wrote a ballet.”
As one of his first moves, Hancock sought out Larry Klein, Joni’s ex and the producer of nearly half of Mitchell’s catalogue. They chose the roster of singers and then worked out a variety of backing groups, often featuring Hancock’s fellow Miles alums Wayne Shorter and Dave Holland.
Hancock was attracted to the project, in part, by the challenge of making words central. “I’m not accustomed to paying attention to lyrics,” he said. “I’m used to harmonies and melodies.” He paused and retreated a little. “I can recognize great lyrics when I hear them. But a lot of the time it’s like a foreign language that I can’t really translate.”
River succeeds because of the mood. Hancock creates a ruminative core sound; an all-star cast of singers deepens the vibe. Tina Turner, Norah Jones, Corinne Bailey Rae, and Mitchell herself provide vocals. There’s even a transcendent reading of Shorter’s wistful sixties classic “Nefertiti” and a take of Duke Ellington’s “Solitude” woven into the otherwise all-Mitchell program, and they fit perfectly. This isn’t the Joni of “Chelsea Morning,” bright and spry, but rather Mitchell in a small Dumbo club that requires a password for entry. The recording closes with Leonard Cohen reciting the stanzas to Mitchell’s 1975 song “The Jungle Line,” accompanied only by Hancock’s piano, a spare and dramatic rendition.
Hancock came of age when pop and jazz overlapped comfortably, and he’s at his best when he shows us how they still can.