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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