Assisted Listen: Herbie Hancock's 'River'

Herbie Hancock

Herbie Hancock won a big Grammy for River: The Joni Letters. Valerie Macon/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Valerie Macon/AFP/Getty Images

Jazz legend Herbie Hancock won the Grammy for best album with River: The Joni Letters. Hancock has made "consequential music" in every decade since the 1960s, says Philadelphia Inquirer critic Tom Moon.

In his long career, Hancock has journeyed through the many worlds of jazz and scored a pop hit in the 1980s with the funk-based "Rockit." His latest record takes the work of folk icon Joni Mitchell as a point of departure. "What Herbie did is basically take these very beautiful vocal melodies and create a slightly different, but not often completely different, setting for them," says Moon.

In "River," Moon finds echoes of Maiden Voyage, the title track from Hancock's 1965 record — a disc he made after a stint playing with jazz great Miles Davis. Hancock's virtuoso skills serve him well here. Moon compares a clip from Mitchell's original to Hancock's version with Norah Jones on vocals. "When he gets a song that really pulls together a lot of what's great about Joni, something like 'Court and Spark,' he sets out a mood that any singer with a good ear can follow," Moon says.

The distance between Hancock and Mitchell's work may be shorter than you'd imagine, Moon says, thanks to Wayne Shorter. The jazz saxophonist has teamed up with each of them. "He's the most inventive improviser that we have," says Moon. "To hear him play into these songs, some of which he played on the original, is just great."

On 'River,' Hancock Skates Away with Grammy

Herbie Hancock

Herbie Hancock's River: The Joni Letters features guest appearances from Norah Jones, Tina Turner, Corinne Bailey Rae, Leonard Cohen, Luciana Souza and Joni Mitchell herself. Kwaku Alston hide caption

itoggle caption Kwaku Alston

Last night, the Album of the Year Grammy went to an underdog. Herbie Hancock's River: The Joni Letters is only the second time a jazz album has received the big award — the last one was Stan Getz's Getz/Gilberto, 43 years ago. But for those who know the pianist, who has made thoughtful contributions to jazz in each decade since the 1960s, the unlikely honor isn't really so unlikely.

For much of his storied career, Hancock has explored jazz, funk, hip-hop and all sorts of pop with renegade fearlessness. So it wasn't exactly a surprise when he decided to take on the Joni Mitchell songbook. With help from a mighty band and big-name stars including Norah Jones, Tina Turner, and Leonard Cohen, Hancock set out to reframe Mitchell's confessional songs — cornerstones of singer-songwriter music — in a jazz context.

From a distance, River looks like another of those tribute projects that have become a depressing fixture of recent jazz. But Hancock is too smart to follow the tribute-record script. He doesn't radically overhaul Mitchell's songs — instead, he gently opens them up and lures the singers into fascinating free-associative conversations.

It's like there are two stories being told in these songs. One in Mitchell's words, alongside a secondary narrative being told between Hancock and his longtime collaborator, the amazing saxophonist Wayne Shorter.

This isn't a great jazz album from start to finish, especially compared with the towering LPs Hancock made for Blue Note in the 1960s. That's why it's strange to see it win the Album of the Year prize. As Hancock noted, it is completely different from what's happening in pop music these days.

But who knows why it won? Maybe the Recording Academy is finally suffering from diva fatigue. Or maybe this time the music won out. Because the interactions on River are more thoughtful and spontaneous than most of what crossed the stage on music's biggest night.

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