Friday Night Jazz: River: The Joni Letters

River_the_joni_letters_2 The most interesting Jazz album I have heard this year has been Herbie Hancock’s tribute disc to Joni Mitchell — River: The Joni Letters.

Mitchell’s poetic folk and jazz style lends itself well to a more pure jazz interpretation, and Hancock does just that. It does the material great justice.

Considering how fabulous the disc is, it sold next to nothing before winning a Grammy for Album of the Year — and not a whole lot more since. That’s a shame, as it is a cool delight. Perhaps last year’s messy and inconsistent A Tribute To Joni Mitchell is to blame… except for k.d. lang’s languid version of Help Me, the rest of the album was mostly a bust.

That’s a shame, because this album really deserves a chance to shine on its own. Hancock is a legendary jazz musician, keyboardist, and producer. His star-studded list of vocalists includes Corinne Bailey Rae ("River"), Norah Jones ("Court and Spark"), Tina
Turner ("Edith and the Kingpin"), Luciana Souza ("Amelia"), Leonard
Cohen ("The Jungle Line"), and Mitchell herself ("Tea Leaf Prophecy"). Saxophonist Wayne Shorter adds a smooth and mellow flavor throughout.

One of the highlights of the disc is River (see video below). Hancock creates a fine balance between jazz improvisation and adult pop. Listen to how he arranges this song, pulling its jazz essence to the fore, while Corinne Bailey Rae wraps her voice perfectly around this Mitchell composition.

Perfect for our Friday Night Jazz session . . .

Herbie Hancock featuring Corinne Bailey Rae – River

more videos after the jump . . .


Fast Focus (short documentary)


New York Jungle-part 1 (The Jungle Line-H.Hancock/ L.Cohen)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

What's been said:

Discussions found on the web:
  1. ZB commented on Jul 11

    I remember when many of the jazz CDs in Tower Records were Japanese imports – of American artists. Weird. Anyways, back to my Grant Green downloads.

  2. prostratedragon commented on Jul 11

    Still can’t believe that River actually won its richly-deserved AOTY grammy.

    Speaking of my cd-player …

  3. Richard Kline commented on Jul 12

    Bought it; loved it. To me, the best track was Leonard Cohen’s closing spoken-prose reading of The Jungle Line. Tres beat, and it put the historical nature of this work in perspective. Hancock, Shorter, Cohen, and Mitchell made it in the 60s, got mostly famous in the 70s, and have stayed in the game, up and down, ever since. Still on form, the lot of ’em. Herbie didn’t open up a lot on his own riffs but still sparkled in his focused way, as always.

    Something else interesting was Joni’s own voice on Tea Leaf Prophecy. Much deeper than in her day, and not as straight ahead, but full of authority and confidence (which figures since she’s singing her own lyrics). A very interesting perspective on her as a performer. I’d have loved it if the astonishing Joni impersonator whose name I regrettably cannot recall had been given a slot here, but that’s for another day.

  4. Jim commented on Jul 12


    After a really rough week, that video of the “River” was just what the doctor ordered.

    So gorgeous—both the music and she.


  5. Dave In Duluth commented on Jul 12

    When I was in college, I thought Joni was just chick music. My friend Vicky would want to bring her guitar over and play Joni songs, none of which made sense and only used two weird chords. Us guys wanted to play much more meaningful music loaded with beefy chords and so important I can’t remember what the songs were.
    I bought the River two months ago and I see now that Joni was s-o-o-o far ahead of her time as both a sognwriter and a poet and that Vicky was actually on to something. Then you add Herbie and his genius and the whole thing just blasts into the stratosphere.
    A most essential jazz record. Only warning: this CD contains “real” jazz – the kind you have to think about. If you expect “smooth jazz” you may be frustrated– or enlightened. You may also want to check out Herbie’s “Possibilities” with an “All-Star” line-up.
    Barry, I dont know nuthin bout that there financhul stuff you blog about (but I’m a-learning) so I appreciate the chance to comment on another topic.

  6. Dan commented on Jul 12

    Excellent choice, I enjoyed this so much I went to iTunes & purchased the album. Thanks!

  7. Cale commented on Jul 12

    Agreed – also one of my favorite CDs. The album of the year win was a welcome surprise. Too bad it didn’t translate into stronger sales. The Herbie/Wayne interplay is at such a high level of musical expression yet still maintains the essential qualities of Joni’s songs. A good listening choice after Friday’s market turmoil.

  8. ReturnFreeRisk commented on Jul 13

    Excellent choice Barry. I just heard it again this weekend. What a way to relax after last week’s hectic trading. btw, if you have not heard this on LP (yes it is available on vinyl), drop by my place and be ready for a revelation.

  9. shtove commented on Jul 13

    Difficult song. CBR is a little beauty.

    Ever hear Sinead O’Connor’s cover of My Man’s Gone Now? Larry Adler gave her a hard time in studio, but I think she won through with a truly spooky performance.

    Your Friday night writing has the quality of the album review chapters in American Psycho! I suspect you’re a fan.

Posted Under