Singers of the songs

Norah Jones, Tina Turner, Corrine Bailey Rae, Luciana Souza and Leonard Cohen are not voices necessarily dear to fans of serious jazz, but Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter don’t alone make River: The Joni Letters a must-hear.

In yesterday’s post I didn’t do justice to the singers who deliver Joni Mitchell’s art songs — the deep yet on-the-surface satisfying lyrics which are, after all, more her main metier than the crafting of thrilling melodies for strict performance or inspired improvisation, which is what pianist Hancock and his musicians give her here.
Mitchell’s career as a pop artist is surely grounded in the integration of her persona as singer-songwriter-performer-icon-composer (in the sense of working up indelible music with gifted collaborators the studio, rather than alone at a sheaf of scoring paper or with Finale). She’s like Bob Dylan that way, and similarly, her works may be covered by others, but seldom then have the idiosyncratic power they do when their auteur delivers the goods, him/herself.
Now, I’m fascinated by instrumental music, and most intrigued by it here. Hancock, with arranger-producer Larry Klein (Mitchell’s husband 1982-’93), succeeds in framing, recontextualizing, expanding and weaving completing around Mitchell’s material from albums 1970 – 1980, and “Tea Leaf Prophecy” (1988) with the Artist Herself singing. The ensemble sound — Herbie working soul vamps as well a harmonically rich, suspensefully ambiguous ambient fields, crosshatched by Lionel Loueke’s plucked guitar, with Shorter’s keening, sweet & sour saxes here and there (sometimes in the fore), Dave Holland’s unobtrusive bass and Vinnie Colaiuta’s touch-sensitive percussion — bravo! This music en toto is far more acoustically organic than any previously Mitchell musical renditions. And remember: she’s worked closely with Tom Scott, Jaco Pastorius and Charles Mingus (she, Hancock and Shorter first performed together shortly after Mingus’ death in ’79), with plenty of quirky, ambitious musical ideas of her own.
I’m not by default a sucker for singers, nor have I ever been an ardent fan of Mitchell, though I’ve developed more admiration and affection for her concepts and sound(s) as I’ve matured. (A guy’s gotta be able to project and empathize, I argue, even perhaps learn to do that, to embrace and enjoy the essence of her perspective. I mean, she stands so firmly as woman — I used to give her as openminded a listen as my female friends could muster for Captain Beefheart if I insisted). However, Rivers deserves appreciation and praise for singers’ star turns that contribute to the greater good — a fully embodied tribute to and advance of Joni Mitchell’s oeuvre.
Opening with “Court and Spark,” title song from Mitchell’s 1974 album: shy angel Norah Jones sighs with her characteristically inviting bohemian winsomeness. In liner notes Hancock and Klein thank her for “courageous honesty and humility” — she certainly plays all utterances as intimate conversation. Whereas Tina Turner, following with “Edith and The Kingpin,” (from Hissing, and performed live on Shadows and Light, 1980) adds a soupcon more street cynicism and backbeat than Joni’s been treated to before, giving the song’s story — like one of Patricia Highsmith’s Little Tales of Misogyny — cinematic existence, as if adapted by Tarantino a la Jackie Brown).
Corrine Bailey Rae, who I’d never previously heard or heard of but reputedly had an immediate British breakthrough with her eponymous debut album in 2006, blythely commands the center of “River” itself, overcoming the lyric’s bluesy rue with delight and fantasy. Next up: Joni Mitchell gives “Tea Leaf Prophecy” a Billie Holiday twist of gravitas. Her voice is grainy but graceful, her phrasing devastating, supported by the jazzmen at their most attentive.
After that performance (and an instrumental version of Ellington’s “Solitude”) “Amelia” (from Hejiera of ’76) seems somewhat anticlimactic, though Luciana Souza — like Jones, Turner and Rae — selects and amplifies an aspect of Mitchell’s own approach, in this case being slightly darker yet lighter than her model (Jones more coy, Turner tougher, Rae more giddy), rather than trying to counter the influence. Leonard Cohen‘s grisley suede intonation of “The Jungle Line,” another of Mitchell’s densely imagistic episodes, concludes River in pitch black. “Through savage progress cuts the jungle line” is the punch line of her poem about nature’s implacable dominion, which begins “Rousseau walks on trumpet paths/Safaris to the heart of all that jazz . . .” Joni Mitchell, painter as well as singer-songwriter-performer-icon-composer is writing about the heart of darkness, and I don’t get it all, but the words are important (that’s Henri, not Jean-Jacques, Rousseau), as is their articulation and delivery. Each vocalist (Cohen, a singer?) on River is hyper-aware of all that, imprints the self through the song, serves as featured soloist not showstopper, adds to the fine balance of this recording, distinctive and distinguished.

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  1. Bill Metcalfe says

    In the 60’s I listened to the new rock and folk like everyone else I knew, and I also loved the new jazz, unlike most people. Herbie and Shorter were part of that. So I remember Hancock running parallel to Joni back then, and maybe unaware of each other. Also I attended one of Leonard Cohen’s first-ever performances as a singer, in Vancouver in about ’65, and I knew about Joni when she was about 17. (I am a Canadian, and so are Joni and Leonard, so was aware of them before Americans were.) This album moves me because it is a confluence or convergence of those two streams I was in in the old days, and of Canada and the U.S. And it’s great music too,of course. Holland added to the mix of Joni, Leonard, Shorter, and Herbie is a lovely bonus. BM
    Right, I didn’t mention that Cohen and Mitchell go way back, and I wonder if Dave Holland had any thoughts about Jaco Pastorius, another significant Mitchell collaborator, as he worked on this music (not that I’ve noticed). Another idea came up after the posting — River has some parallels in its approach to embedding the vocals and opening/deepening the non-jazz musical elements with Native Dancer, Shorter’s album featuring much Hancock support that introduced the huge voice of Brazilian Milton Nascimento to North American audiences, way back in fall 1974. — HM