when herbie and joni met grammy

Given Herbie Hancock's surprising Best Album Grammy win, I thought I'd forward this piece I wrote late last year about the recording, for Jazziz magazine's Jan/Feb. issue.

How Herbie Learned The Lyrics

by Larry Blumenfeld

The scene has been enacted countless times in coffee shops and dorm rooms: Folks sitting around and listening to or, maybe, just reading Joni Mitchell lyrics, digging for biographical facts, mulling over meanings, exclaiming "ooh" or "ahh" at an unexpected image drawn with words. But in May 2007, these were no college students on study break, no latte-sipping dilettantes kicking back, dissecting Mitchell's work. This was Herbie Hancock reading aloud the lyrics of "Court and Spark." And that was Wayne Shorter clapping his hands as he let out a deep sigh of recognition. It was the prelude to a session at Hollywood's Ocean Way Recording studio for Hancock's new album, River: The Joni Letters (Verve), which turned out to be not so much a tribute to Mitchell as an investment by a master musician in the power of exalted lyrics.

Hancock and Mitchell's history together began on shaky ground. Not long after Hancock established himself as a leading force in modern jazz - initially through his work in Miles Davis' quintet, then through his own recordings - Mitchell rose to unparalleled stature as a singer and songwriter, a poet and painter, a Renaissance woman the likes of which popular music had never before known.

But Hancock was largely unaware of Mitchell's artistry back then. "I remember hearing about her," he says from his Los Angeles studio. "And I heard some of her songs on the radio. But my focus back then was on jazz and classical music. I wasn't really paying attention to any pop or rock or folk music at the time."

Hancock was eventually drawn into Mitchell's orbit by a 1979 call from bassist Jaco Pastorius, who invited the pianist to work on Mingus, the album Mitchell developed with Charles Mingus during the legendary bassist's final days. Shorter was also involved in that project, and had previously worked on Mitchell's 1977 album, Don Juan's Reckless Daughter. Hancock recalls: "Wayne had told me that Joni was willing to go out there, to not worry, to just be creative." Still, the pianist figured that he and the other jazz musicians in Mitchell's company would be "restricting themselves to play in a certain way." Instead, he was pleasantly surprised at how free the musical environment was, and at some inherent qualities in Mitchell's songs. "It wasn't jazz, you know, but the DNA of it was there." During the Mingus sessions, a friendship bloomed between Hancock and Mitchell that would grow richer through the years. Hancock would occasionally perform with Mitchell, sometimes at benefits thrown by the San Francisco-based Bread and Roses organization. He played on another Mitchell album, the 2000 orchestral collection Both Sides Now.

The relationship among these musicians and their spouses grew throughout the 1980s, with much of the socializing taking place at a now-defunct restaurant on Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood called the Nucleus Nuance. "We'd all hang out there," says Larry Klein, Mitchell's ex-husband and close musical collaborator, who was Hancock's partner in arranging and producing the new CD. "And every New Year's we'd be the band - Herbie, Wayne, Joni, myself, and assorted characters."

When Verve Records executive Dahlia Ambach-Caplin approached Hancock with the idea of tackling Joni Mitchell tunes, Klein was the natural choice for collaboration. "And the next call," says Hancock, "went to Wayne." A devastatingly accomplished core band was assembled: Hancock, Shorter, bassist Dave Holland, guitarist Lionel Loueke, and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta. Guest vocalists were enlisted: Norah Jones, who sings "Court and Spark" with casual ease; Tina Turner, whose worldly wise and proudly funky "Edith and the Kingpin" is among the album's highpoints; Corinne Bailey Rae, who purrs and croons through "River"; and Luciana Souza, who elegantly mines the meditative core of "Amelia." The gravelly bass voice of Leonard Cohen speaks "The Jungle Line" to Hancock's accompaniment and, on "The Tea Leaf Prophecy (Lay Down Your Arms)," Mitchell herself provides a vocal so agile in phrasing and color that it nearly steals the show.

Yet Hancock's River is hardly a showcase for singers. There are four instrumentals among the 10 tracks, including two songs that were early obsessions for Mitchell: Duke Ellington's "Solitude," which she experienced as a child through the Billie Holiday recording her mother favored, and Shorter's "Nefertiti," which she listened to again and again on Miles Davis' 1967 album of the same name. More to the point, the arrangements and playing here are woven so well with the words that they turn the tunes into seamless tone poems.

Time and again, Hancock and Shorter seem to complete a sung phrase. Over and over, the rhythm section adds perfect punctuation. And though this is ostensibly an album of Hancock considering Mitchell's art, it is as much about the pianist's relationship with Shorter, whose tenor- and soprano-sax playing turns out to be the most human voice in the cast. Shorter whittles "Court and Spark" into a five-note mantra, tosses out a delicate lullaby-like figure near the end of "River," and, during an instrumental version of "Both Sides Now," lands eventually on just breath.

For Hancock, the approach to this recording was both a revelation and a challenge. As Klein explains, "The big overview was that the record should emanate from the words and everything should be subservient to the poetry."

"I'm just not used to looking at words," says Hancock. "We just don't pay attention to them. We're dazzled by textures and timbres and colors and chords." Klein was Hancock's guide to Mitchell's lyrics. "Her imagery is incredible," Hancock continues, "and some of it is pretty deep and hard to get into. I'd have to ask Larry, 'What does she mean by this?' And for the most part, he knew the connections."
"It was great watching him discover," Klein says, "just like it is when you turn someone on to a great book and watch it set off sparks."

Before each session, Klein would play Mitchell's original version of a song. He'd pass out the lyrics, and the band would discuss them. "To one degree or another, I'd give my synopsis," says Klein, "and people would have questions of their own about what this or that meant."

Hancock was fascinated by the story behind "The Tea Leaf Prophecy," which foretold Mitchell's parents' marriage. Mitchell sang the tune for Hancock's album just one month after her mother's death, adding new drama to the lyric. He was blown away by the powerful imagery of "Amelia" - how, for instance, Mitchell conflated the vapor trails from six jet planes with the strings of her guitar. And, according to Klein, when Shorter heard the narrative of "Edith and the Kingpin," about a small-time pimp and his minions at a club, he lit up with inspiration and said, "'I'm going to be the guy at the end of the bar, taking this all in."

There's a line in "Edith and the Kingpin" when Mitchell's narrator, describing the club's "sophomore jazz," says, "The band sounds like typewriters." Maybe Klein and Hancock had that in mind at their earliest meetings, as something to avoid, when they decided together another rule of thumb for the recording: less is more. "The most typical thing that people in jazz do is that they reharmonize the hell out of everything with [chord] substitutions, and yank out all of the main pillars of the structure," Klein explains. "Herbie knew that wasn't the right approach here. And Joni can't stand that sort of thing."

Sure enough, on "Court and Spark," the familiar four-chord pillar is intact. And there is a marvelous economy to nearly everything on River. Hancock and Shorter don't so much take solos as offer concise counterpoint to the vocals. On instrumental tunes, they seem to converse.

The one substantially reharmonized treatment is "Both Sides Now," the first tune that Hancock worked on, and one performed sans vocal. That was the only arrangement that he wrote out. (Klein did most of the others, which were more sketched than composed.) "I had all these chords in my head," says Hancock, "all these tonalities that the lyric suggested to me." When he played a fragment of his treatment at a meeting, Klein nodded. The song is about changing perceptions and evolution. With that in mind, Hancock reasoned, the chords could also change.

For Hancock, the recurring musical cycle of "Amelia" presented a particularly vexing challenge. "How do you make musical variety with six or seven verses, where each one has the same shape? Lyrically, Joni did it. Musically, I wasn't sure how."

Luciana Souza, who sang the tune, believes Hancock not only met the song's challenge, but also understood its essence. "I felt myself very calm, trusting that we were all telling that story together, all in the 23-measure cycle of her song," she says. "I felt like we were fishermen who trust the tide that rises and empties out." Souza, who has mined the poems of Pablo Neruda and Elizabeth Bishop for her own repertoire, appreciates River on a deep, extra-musical level. "Herbie's record translates Mitchell's music very well to a more abstract context. Even where you do have lyrics and a singer, things are implied and not literal, leaving room for the listener to complete the thoughts. In this way, it is the purest form of poetry."

When the album was completed, Klein played it for Mitchell, who loved it. "I told her we wanted to make a record that was a conversation about the poetry. She said, 'That's what I was trying to do on Mingus.'"

Hancock, who's known Mitchell for decades and has long recognized the poetic qualities in even her everyday conversation, feels that through this newest project he's discovered his friend's art anew. "Now that I've had a chance to study these lyrics, to live with them, I have to ask myself: 'How could I have missed out on all this? Where was I when all this was happening?'"

February 12, 2008 3:25 PM | | Comments (1)



thanks so much for this. as a musician/singer/songwriter i have been a joni fan for decades, since the beginning of her career. i played guitar and flute--because my voice was low and the flute allowed me to 'sing' like joni. i didn't discover jazz til my early twenties, when i discovered Native Dancer, fell in love with Wayne and soprano sax, and eventually tenor, as i went further back to Wayne's gorgeous blue note records. when joni and wayne started working together, it was like the marriage of my two greatest musical inspirations. This Herbie album takes this marriage of jazz/singer-songwriter/poetry to unbelievable new heights and depths. And, although i love all the performances on the album--particularly 'both sides now' and tina's version of 'edith,' joni's own 'tea leaf prophecy' really steals the show for me, a dream synthesis of instrumental and vocal phrasing, harmony, and interplay. I've listened to it over and over, and kept wondering about the story told: was this a movie i hadn't seen? a book i should recognize? like herbie, i am blown away to learn that this is a story of how joni's own parents met. to me, these are the new gorgeous standards that i want to play. (does anybody have charts of these arrangements?) thank you for this story.

Leave a comment


Evan Christopher Django à la Créole (Lejazzetal) 

Clarinetist Evan Christopher, a California native, moved to New Orleans in 1994. In his frequent duets with Tom McDermott, and as a standout member of trumpeter Irvin Mayfield's New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, his erudite and personalized approach to traditional jazz commands attention.

Dr. Michael White Blue Crescent (Basin Street) 

Long before the floods that devastated his city, clarinetist Michael White wrestled with the challenge of preserving New Orleans traditional jazz without embalming it. He sought to write tunes built on time-honored local forms that spoke to the here-and-now. But Dr. White struggled to compose anything at all during the past three years--until late 2007, when original music began pouring forth.

Dee Dee Bridgewater
Red Earth: A Malian Journey (DDB Records/Emarcy/Universal) Despite her place in the top rank of American jazz vocalists and her crossover success, Dee Dee Bridgewater has often felt displaced. "I'm always trying to fit in somewhere," she once told me. This new disc, which finds Ms. Bridgewater and her band in collaboration with a cast of Malian musicians and singers, is no further pose:
David Murray Black Saint Quartet featuring Cassandra Wilson Sacred Ground (Justin Time) 
Long among the strongest, most adventurous reedmen in jazz,
Joe Zawinul Brown Street (Heads Up) 
The list of great Viennese composers must include Zawinul--same for the honor roll of jazz innovators.
more listengood


About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by ListenGood published on February 12, 2008 3:25 PM.

thelonious at starbucks (year-in-review) was the previous entry in this blog.

of big chiefs, would-be presidents and other leaders is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

AJ Ads

AJ Blogs

AJBlogCentral | rss

About Last Night
Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
Artful Manager
Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
blog riley
rock culture approximately
critical difference
Laura Collins-Hughes on arts, culture and coverage
Richard Kessler on arts education
Douglas McLennan's blog
Dog Days
Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
Art from the American Outback
Life's a Pitch
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
Mind the Gap
No genre is the new genre
Performance Monkey
David Jays on theatre and dance
Plain English
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Real Clear Arts
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
Rockwell Matters
John Rockwell on the arts
Straight Up |
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude

Foot in Mouth
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Seeing Things
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...

Jazz Beyond Jazz
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...

Out There
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Serious Popcorn
Martha Bayles on Film...

classical music
Creative Destruction
Fresh ideas on building arts communities
The Future of Classical Music?
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
On the Record
Exploring Orchestras w/ Henry Fogel
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Slipped Disc
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds

Jerome Weeks on Books
Quick Study
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera

Drama Queen
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off
lies like truth
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world

Aesthetic Grounds
Public Art, Public Space
Another Bouncing Ball
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
John Perreault's art diary
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary
Modern Art Notes
Tyler Green's modern & contemporary art blog
Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.