At last night's Grammy Awards, an unexpected album took home the evening's top honor. Jazz Pianist Herbie Hancock won the album of the year award for his Joni Mitchell tribute CD "River: The Joni Letters." It was the first time a jazz record has won the award since 1964.

Critic Tom Moon says the choice was an unusual one, but not necessarily the wrong one.

(Soundbite of music)

TOM MOON: For much of his storied career, Herbie Hancock explored jazz and funk, hip-hop and all sorts of pop music with the fearlessness of a renegade. 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.

(Soundbite of song, "Edith and the Kingpin").

Ms. TINA TURNER (Singer): (Singing) Edith in the ring, the passed-over girls are conferring. The man with the diamond ring is purring, all claws for now withdrawn.

MOON: 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 script. He doesn't radically overhaul Joni Mitchell's songs — instead, he gently opens them up and lures the singers into fascinating free-associative conversations.

Listen to this version of "Court and Spark" featuring Norah Jones.

(Soundbite of song, "Court and Spark")

Ms. NORAH JONES (Singer): (Singing) Love came to my door with a sleeping roll. And a madman's soul, he thought for sure I'd seen him, dancing up a river in the dark, looking for a woman to court and spark.

MOON: It's like there are two stories being told in these songs - one in Mitchell's words and another secondary narrative being told between Hancock and his longtime collaborator, the amazing saxophonist Wayne Shorter.

(Soundbite of music)

MOON: This isn't a great jazz album from start to finish, especially compared with the towering ones 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 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.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: The album is "River: The Joni Letters" from Herbie Hancock. Our critic is Tom Moon.

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