A decade ago, pianist Herbie Hancock established his “New Standards” initiative, aiming to wed sophisticated improvisation to a contemporary American pop songbook (post-Berlin, Gershwin, Porter, et al). At last, after several disastrous attempts, he’s justified such a project with River: The Joni Letters — infusing well-known high art pop songs by inimitable Joni Mitchell with the depth of lyrical, inspired jazz.
Mitchell demonstrates her mastery of story-song and narrative singing on “Tea Leaf Prophecy,” while Corinne Bailey Rae is hypnotically compelling on “River.” Tina Turner, Luciana Souza and Norah Jones vocalize, too, and poet Leonard Cohen declaims. But the unexpected beauty of this album comes from the variegated soli and obligatti of saxophonist Wayne Shorter (whose composition “Nefertiti” is explored at length), subtle rhythmic ambiance provided by guitarist Lionel Louke, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Vinnie Colaluta, and most especially the creativity of Hancock himself.
As a pianist-composer-electric keyboardist going on five decades Hancock has recorded more rangily than anyone else. His Maiden Voyage of 1965 is one of my lifelong favorite albums (I’m only linking to most highly recommended albums below), a re-envisioning of his then-employer Miles Davis’ modal masterpiece Kind of Blue with Miles bandmates Ron Carter (bass), Tony Williams (drums) and George Coleman (tenor sax) plus wunderkind trumpeter Freddie Hubbard; its predecessor from ’64 Empyrean Isles (same team without Coleman) is also fine. Hancock hit heights of experimentalism post Miles’ In A Silent Way) with his early ’70s Mwandishi band (on Crossings and
Hancock has worked to re-establish the mainstream (with V.S.O.P. and his 1980 sponsorship of Wynton Marsalis) and has also released projects of severe abstraction (on 1+!, in duet with Shorter on soprano). Since 1997 he has served the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, mentoring several classes of elite music students toward professional goals. His determination to popularize jazz and jazz pop is long-established, but his efforts, especially of late, have often missed their mark.
His failures to engage either jazz or pop audiences with last year’s Possibilities (in which he was rendered irrelevant by Sting, Paul Simon, Joss Stone, John Mayer, Christina Aguilera and others whose fanbases are likely ignorant of Hancock and remain so), Future2Future (pretentious and unsuccessful pursuit of youth, 2001), The New Standard (dismal repertoire, unconvincing performances, 1996), and Dis Is Da Drum (ugly sludgy mix, 1994) have been painful. In live concerts I’ve caught in recent years Herbie has quite often been boring, vague, unable to catch fire or hold attentions — unforgivable jazz sins.
But on River: The Joni Lettershis touch, choices and nuances seem limitless and inviting. The music is languid as still water or slow clouds, but it has substance, stimulating reflection and ushering in welcome repose. Over the course of early listenings, it feels (at least in part) like a masterpiece; it is certainly Hancock’s best album since Gershwin’s World of 1998, on which Joni Mitchell contributed a wrenching intepretation of “The Man I Love” and Stevie Wonder played rousing harmonica on “St. Louis Blues.” Shorter was superb on that one, too.
Stick to it, gents (and Ms. Mitchell). If you can reaffirm the conjunction of pop and jazz we will all be the richer.