« My thoughts on UCLA | Main | A mystery lesson »

April 07, 2008

Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters: Smooth sailing


It’s easy to dislike Herbie Hancock.  The man is 67 and looks 40!  (Someone needs to check his attic for that hidden Dorian Gray portrait.)  But then you listen to his music and you are immersed in a variety of emotions—love, melancholy, desire, thoughtful introspection—but none of them are alike.  In fact, it’s just the opposite.  You experience such a broad spectrum of emotion that you feel even more connected to other people, as if you can suddenly fully appreciate and empathize with everyone else’s feelings.  If ever a musician was able to create a musical sense of community, Herbie has consistently done that in album after album.

Herbie’s latest album, "River: The Joni Letters," recently shocked the music world when it won the 2007 Grammy for best album of the year against more mainstream media darlings like Amy Winehouse, Vince Gill, the Foo Fighters, and Kanye West.  Jazz has usually been the tolerated stepchild of the popular music world, neglected and ignored, left to play in its room with a few of its misfit friends.  Despite that, Herbie’s jazz piano playing has garnered 10 Grammy awards, including two for other tribute albums to Miles Davis and George Gershwin.

It’s easy to see why Herbie was attracted to Joni Mitchell’s songs.  Not only is she a dynamic performer herself, but her portfolio of songs is  among the most influential in the last 30 years of popular music.  You can hardly read an interview with the most famous and respected songwriters of the last few decades without having them mention their debt to Joni.  In the movie "Love Actually," Emma Thompson tells her husband, played by Alan Rickman, that Joni Mitchell “is the woman who taught your cold English wife how to feel.”  Using a variety of musical influences from folk to rock—and especially jazz—Joni taught a whole generation around the world how to feel.  The genius of Herbie Hancock is he’s using those same songs to teach us all how to feel again—but even more deeply, more richly.

Although all the song titles will be familiar to avid Joni Mitchell fans, some of the songs are more obscure to the casual listener: “Edith and the Kingpin” (with vocals by Tina Turner) and “Tea Leaf Prophecy” (with vocals by Joni Mitchell) to name two.  But some of her most familiar songs are also here, including “Court and Spark” (with vocals by Norah Jones), “River” (with vocals by Corrine Bailey Rae), and “Amelia” (with vocals by Luciana Souza).

Even when the song titles are familiar, the same can’t be said for Herbie’s interpretation.  His unique gift is for taking what the listener thinks he knows, and presenting it in a way that forces us to re-imagine the song.  Many musicians, even jazz performers, fall into the trap of producing an album in which the songs, when played all at once, start to sound disappointingly similar.  Herbie deftly avoids that trap by taking risks that defy listener expectations.  His interpretation of Joni’s “The Jungle Line,” with poet/novelist/musician Leonard Cohen reciting the lyrics, is one such example.  Yet, there is a musical thread that weaves all the songs together as if they were all well-crafted chapters in an intimate novel: the feathery brushing of the drum, the unhurried insistency of the piano, the soulful voices of the singers.  Joni says in “Both Sides Now”: “I really don’t know love at all.”  But listening to this tender and thoughtful album, we might all feel a lot closer to knowing love.

(Photo credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters: Smooth sailing:



Kareem -

I always enjoy reading your blog, and as a musician, it's a special treat for me when you're writing about music.

Herbie's latest is an amazing record. On first listening, it struck me as a lovely album, but each successive listen has really revealed its depth and beauty. If you're familiar with the original Joni versions, it's particularly remarkable to hear how intricately and organically Herbie and the other musicians deconstruct and distill these compositions.

Special mention should go out to Wayne Shorter, who as usual is just stunning. In fact, he's kind of the through line of the album, along with Herbie's piano (and of course, Wayne has played with Joni for years.)



I hope there is someone out there who seems that Herbie won a Grammy, buys this cd, and then explores his entire career, because he continues to have a great career in music. And that Edith and the Kingpin song on his new cd is a very sexy song. I wish Tina would sing like that more often.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Captain Kareem

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is considered by many fans and sportswriters to be the greatest basketball player of all time. The 7-foot-2 Hall of Fame center, famous for his indefensible skyhook, dominated the NBA for 20 years, first with the Milwaukee Bucks then with the Los Angeles Lakers. Before that he was the star of the UCLA Bruins teams that won three consecutive NCAA championships. Kareem was the NBA's MVP six times, a 19-time all-star and set the NBA all-time records in nine categories. He is the NBA's all-time leading scorer with 38,387 points, a record that may never be broken.

Since retiring as a player in 1989, Kareem has balanced his love of basketball with his love of history. In 2002 he led a USBL team, the Oklahoma Storm, to a championship. Since 2005, he has been the special assistant coach for the Lakers, working with Andrew Bynum.

In 2008 he was chosen The Greatest Player in College Basketball History.

Kareem also remains intellectually active, authoring six bestselling history books intended to popularize the contributions of African-Americans to American culture and history. His books include "Black Profiles in Courage: A Legacy of African-American Achievement"; "Brothers in Arms: The Epic Story of the 761st Tank Battalion, WWII's Forgotten Heroes"; "A Season on the Reservation," which chronicles his time teaching basketball and history on an Apache Indian reservation in White River, Ariz.; and the current New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller, "On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance."

His audio adaptation, "On the Shoulders of Giants: My Audio & Musical Journey through the Harlem Renaissance," is a four-volume compilation read by Bob Costas, Avery Brooks, Jesse L. Martin, and Stanley Crouch, and features private and fascinating conversations with dozens of icons, including Coach John Wooden, Julius Erving, Charles Barkley, Samuel L. Jackson, Maya Angelou, Quincy Jones and Billy Crystal. He has also been written to L.A. Times, under the Sports section.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has been appearing on various radio stations and TV shows, as well as the most relevant websites talking about his life and his new audio book, On the Shoulders of Giants.

All images are property of www.iconomy.com unless otherwise stated. All info copyrighted and owned by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is not replicated without permission.

Come meet Kareem at the NBA Store on 5th Avenue: Friday, May 16th, from 3:15pm - 4:15pm.

Kareem_READ The American Library Association (ALA) is pleased to announce that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has joined the popular Celebrity READ poster series. The Celebrity READ poster campaign is one of the most effective ways to encourage people to get a good education, improve their reading skills, and to read for sheer enjoyment.
Mr. Abdul-Jabbar is the 2008 Honorary Chair Library Card Sign-up Month, which takes place in September. He will also appear at the American Library’s National Convention on June 28th and 29th at the Long Beach Convention Center to sign his poster.

To purchase Mr. Abdul-Jabbar's poster and to view the entire line of Celebrity READ Posters, please click here. now!

Kareem_jersey Join the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's Fan Club
and win a chance to receive a prize from my official store !

Go to KareemAbdulJabbar.com now!

ESPN names Kareem The Greatest Player In College Basketball History

Check the latest about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Go to KareemAbdulJabbar.com for more news.
Sport Blogs - Blog Catalog Blog Directory