Review by Ryan Fergus
Herbie Hancock had made a career of zig-zags and left turns- veering from a 60’s era Miles Davis sideman to excursions into funk, electro and even pop. On his latest, River: The Joni Letters (Verve), Hancock pays tribute to another legendary maverick. Dissecting the broad repertoire of Joni Mitchell (with the help of longtime Mitchell collaborator Larry Klein and a slew of guest vocalists), Hancock manages to stage dramatic reinterpretations that focus heavily on fleshing out the lyrical mood of each piece.
The surprises that flow through River are plentiful; Tina Turner sounds every bit as fierce as one would hope on “Edith and the Kingpin,” while Ms. Mitchell herself shows up for a subdued reworking of “The Tea Leaf Prophecy (Lay Down Your Arms).” Leonard Cohen’s gravelly grumble even turns up on “The Jungle Line,” turning Mitchell’s synthesized world beat into a spoken-word tone poem (resulting in perhaps the album’s sole misstep).
As the guests frequently come and go (including the requisite Norah Jones guest vocal), Hancock’s piano acts as an eloquent host to the proceedings, backed by a crack band including Wayne Shorter on both soprano and tenor sax, and the multi-dimensional session legend Vinnie Colaiuta on drums.
Make no mistake; the track selection here is varied. There is no “Big Yellow Taxi” to be found and only one cut off of Mitchell’s seminal 1971 masterpiece, Blue, made the cut (a soulful version of “River” featuring songbird-of-the-moment Corinne Bailey Rae).
That said, don’t be scared off by the unconventional palette Hancock has chosen to work from. He knows as well as anyone that Mitchell’s career has never been about hit singles, or genre-specific consistency. Instead, it’s been a journey of lyrical depth, varied emotion and a restless urge to consistently unearth new ground.
In other words, traits that Hancock himself is all too familiar with.