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Herbie Hancock - River - The Joni Letters CD (album) cover


Herbie Hancock

Jazz Rock/Fusion

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Conor Fynes
4 stars 'River: The Joni Letters' - Herbie Hancock (7/10)

The name of Herbie Hancock is one of legend on its own, but the renowned jazz pianist takes his time here to pay his respects and tribute another and friend of his; the Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell. Although 'River' is little more than a tribute album in formula, this work ended up winning the 2007 Grammy for 'Best Album', the first time a jazz album had won that honour in over four decades. Hearing the work and arrangements of Herbie Hancock here though, it is clear that quite a bit more thought has gone into bringing these songs to life than the typical covers album. Instead, Hancock directs an all-star cast of the who's who in jazz today, bringing them together to pay their respects. The beautifully lyrical songwriting of Joni Mitchell is conveyed with passion through each jazzy rendition here, and after listening to the record, it's not too hard to see why this album might have triumphed over the other Grammy nominees, despite 'River' often getting far too mellow to consistently hold one's attention throughout.

With vocalists ranging from the ever-talented Norah Jones to Joni Mitchell herself, Mitchell's profound lyrics are kept in good hands throughout, and her lyrics also happen to be one of the most beautiful things about this piece. Although certainly not original to 'River: The Joni Letters' at all, the laid-back attitude of the jazz instruments paint a fitting backdrop for the vocalist to tell each story through the startling imagery of Joni's poetry. The one potential exception to the success of the vocalists falls on songwriter Leonard Cohen's spoken word passages during the closing number 'The Jungle Line', which pass off as being fairly pretentious as unmusical to the ears of this philistine. In any case, I often tend not to concentrate much on lyrics in music, but with an album tributing one of the most gifted lyricists in the 20th century, it's difficult not to give it note.

Musically, most of the music here are simply renditions of Joni's older work, but what makes 'River' enchanting is that Hancock arranges the pieces in such a way that it makes the songs feel as if they were meant to be performed that way. The performance here has Hancock's typical penchant for detail in bloom, and I do not find myself surprised to be moved by Hancock's precise sense of dynamic and swing. To a listener's potential chagrin however, 'River' generally keeps incredibly mellow throughout, and the music would almost certainly slip into being merely ambient background music were it not for the vocals. With that in mind, the instrumental passages on this album can tend to get- dare I say- a little boring.

'River: The Joni Letters' should easily please fans of Herbie Hancock, Joni Mitchell, and more. The album is as beautiful as any other jazz record one is going to find out there, although there is little here on the instrumental side to really take hold of the imagination. Hancock's clever arrangements of the songs paired with some great vocal performances from the album's cast however, make the album an excellent piece of mellow jazz, Grammy irregardless.

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Posted Sunday, May 1, 2011 | Review Permalink

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