Rivers’ win: Bad for jazz?

Listeners who like their music strong, fresh, mysterious, challenging might share pride in pianist Herbie Hancock’s Grammy Award for River: The Joni Letters — but some snipe it celebrates moderation more than creativity. What’s your take?

I voted “Yea!” back last October when River was released, writing “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” and advised the collaborators “if you can reaffirm the conjunction of pop and jazz we will all be the richer.”
No waffling on this! — Hancock’s sublime piano touch, Vinnie Colaluta’s stirring brushes on the cymbals and drums, Wayne Shorter’s keening high above the range of Norah Jones’ warm voice, Dave Holland’s subtle solid pulse all cohere just as pleasingly and provocatively this morning, though the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences has honored them, the other vocalists, producer Larry Klein composer Mitchell herself with acknowledgement they created the Album of the Year.
But in the New York Times estimable critic Ben Ratliff notes the last time this happened was in ’64, for Getz/Gilberto, and that both these anomalies are “beautiful, though practical . . .syncretist collaborations . . .[with] light voiced singing . . . the drums sound chastened . . soft-edged, literate and respectible. . . an audience bridger.” These aren’t good things?
Ratliff rightly mentions that a split of NARAS votes for the other nominees, Kanye West and Amy Winehouse, may have given River its success, finally calling Hancock’s album “august and exquisitely acceptable.” Maybe that’s why I like it — but I wouldn’t if it were august, exquisitely acceptable, and just like hundreds of other records. No, this music sounds new, convening a creative if subtle ensemble (guitarist Lionel Loueke, too) around enhancing transformations of some familiar but not overworked material, nudging talents including Tina Turner beyond their comfort zones, offering innumerable depths as well as surface pleasures.
Congrats to NARAS members for having honored this! And if there are jazz snobs reading: please get over it. Just because a lot of people like something doesn’t mean it sucks. Sometimes the avant-garde slips into the collective conscious on little cats’ feet. There are no compromises with esthetic integrity on River, just elegance applied by distinguished artists to songs in which they realize previous unexplored possibilities, and in the performance suggest even more.
Though I wouldn’t call it avant-garde Getz/Gilberto has aged well, too. Maybe by virtue of its syncreticism it’s jazz-beyond-jazz. Other opinions are invited.
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  1. says

    This is GREAT for jazz, and some of Ratliff’s own points demonstrate why.
    For one thing, he says, “‘River’ isn’t just a jazz record. It is a singer-songwriter record.” In other words, it combines great jazz musicians with great singers and great material. I’d suggest that this strengthens BOTH categories, rather than diluting either.
    Ratliff also laments that Grammy didn’t anoint Hancock’s Maiden Voyage back in ’65. Well, here’s the chance to correct that mistake: River has the potential to bring people to Voyage and other classic records. Much of Joni’s music leans toward jazz anyway, and if Herbie clarifies their common ground…well, on what planet can that be bad for jazz?

  2. says

    This certainly isn’t the same situation as Getz/Gilberto! The difference is you couldn’t turn on a radio without hearing Ipanema, but nobody’s heard anything out of this album unless one happened to stumble on it. That it was unknown and unpurchased was the big surprise I think.
    As for the artistry, I love the album…but that doesn’t mean I’d prefer most versions here over Joni’s originals—and I’m a jazz fan of 55 years’ standing who had great difficulty with Joni’s involvement into our music. I think it’s wonderful if jazz players attempt her stuff, but it ain’t easy. I’d recommend the album to anyone for Tina, the Leonard Cohen cut and Joni’s own contribution (which is better than her original) but I’m not sure how many times I’m going to search through Both Sides Now for some vestige of the song. Hope I find a clue and change my mind. Congrats to Herbie!

  3. says

    The win is a victory for Jazz Fusion. Smooth, aged, Jazz Fusion! Yes, the “jazz purist” / “snob” always dumps on Jazz Fusion, but make no mistake Herbie, Joni and crew -including Lionel Loueke, are jazz fusionists; which IS ‘pure jazz’… as _Jazz Is_ the American art of musical fusion. The term “Jazz Purist” is oxymoronic. A pathological verbal masturbation tool of snobs ‘getting-off’ on fantasies of their cultural elitism.

  4. Michael says

    Well I guess I’m going to have to buy the CD. I am not a fan of fusion but I don’t hate. Not every piece of Jazz has to be hard nosed.
    NY Times has improved it now has Jazz in its own section and not listed with all music not Classical.
    HM: I think the previous poster meant “fusion” in the sense that all jazz is a conglomeration of elements. . . don’t expect furious noteyness.

  5. says

    I find it interesting and somewhat sad to read comments in Rolling Stone and other pop culture outlets that the fact that Herbie won this award is just another example of how out of touch the Grammies are. There is an attempt to trivialize the winner, a “jazz” album, by touting its irrelevence.
    I’m not sure that the extra few thousand people who dare purchase River out of curiosity will be satisfied. Its elliptical, slightly abstract lyricism without a strong “beat” may seem bewildering, even with the singers. Neophytes may intuitively be seeking a more literal set of interpretations.
    Personally, I think that there is much beauty on River, and I am consistently amazed at the mature, painterly yet abstract logic of the genius Wayne Shorter.