Customer Reviews: River: The Joni Letters (with Bonus Tracks) - Exclusive
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on September 28, 2007
Joni Mitchell has enjoyed a year of industry fans paying tribute to her, those whom she considers her "true peers", the artists who recognize the genuis of her work. Herbie Hancock has assembled a cast of players fit for the high bill of interpreting songs from an artist whose career has been a fluid exploration, much as Hancock employs a fluid sensibility to his arrangements on many of these classics.

Norah Jones opens the show with her rendition of " Court and Spark". It is a fine song in its own right; the only complaint may be that the immediacy of Joni's version is lost here. Composed in Canada, as a response to an actual experience, this song may have been better left off the list. When Mitchell speaks in first person, it's almost an impossible task for another to come in and half way rival the intense delivery, the plumbing of the depths that must occur when Mitchell sings the lyrics she has clearly lived.

Tina Turner purrs through "Edith and the Kingpin", making it the cover that it ought to be. This song demands either the original interpretation or an alternative that gets to the grit of the subject matter by sheer quality of voice. Turner was a perfect choice for this song.

Corrine Baily Rae is another highlight, singing " River" in a way that puts her stamp on the song, yet maintains the integrity of Joni's original release. Perhaps there is a bias on my part, with this being one of my all-time favorite Mitchell songs, but as noted in my review of this year's earlier Tribute, the version on that disc sounded reworked to the point that there were no longer vestigages of Joni left, although it sounded just like a James Taylor original would, leaving it a good song. However, on a tribute, that's far from the point. CBR does a much better job of synthesizing her sound with Joni's, making this the best cover of "River" I've heard.

The inclusion of some of Mitchell's favorite songs from other artists is an inspired choice. "Nefertiti" is always mentioned in interviews where Mitchell cites works that have moved her, so Wayne Shorter stepping in to lend this song, forty years after he helped bring it to life with Miles Davis himself, is a real treat. It is worth noting that the play list is heavily tilted toward material from " Hissing of Summer Lawns", a fact that is probably not coincidental. That was a work that deserved way more positive press than it received; with Hancock being a fellow innovator, it makes sense that he would enjoy giving some added exposure to those overlooked experiements. Leonard Cohen reading " The Jungle Line" is a bit bizarre, however, with him sounding like Vincent Price reciting a monologue. Again, this is a song that may have been better left untouched, or if included, having a reworking that retained the ethnic vibe of the original, as that was part of its charm.

Herbie Hancock is a kindred spirit with Joni Mitchell; they are both restless musicians, always in search of a new direction, inspired by beauty and truth. It is clear that he had the superior vision for a tribute to one of our most cherished talents. The continuity of the disc is a welcome departure from the one released earlier in the year, with the likely explanation being the stewardship of Hancock from conception to birth of this effort. Excellent tribute, with a cameo appearance by Joni herself on " The Tea Leaf Prophecy", an inclusion that carries extra poignancy with the passing of her mother this year, her muse for the song.
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on October 30, 2007
A perfect disc. Tina Turner's take on Edith and the Kingpin moves right into legend. Herbie applies his Mind to Joni Mitchell and mind to mind, art to art, something extraordinary quickens. Call the disc subdued, the better to raise an art. Here are two artists not led by their public, which is to say by fame. What happens therefore is something that reaches, and something worthwhile. Hancock takes Tea Leaf Prophecy and leads Joni back to her jazz self. Very cool. His playing throughout is musically mature, free, unafraid, especially in a redefining 'Both Sides Now' and a ravishing take on Mitchell's musically ebullient 'I Had a King', the two lengthiest tracks on the disc. In the end, and even inbetween, this is Herbie Hancock at peace, and he paints Joni Mitchell with master strokes. &check out T Turner's brilliant turn on Edith! It's a time-stopping bit of pure art that defines the reason for the record. Take your hat off, and your shoes.

2/10: CONGRATS Herbie! An Album of the Year Grammy for River! Like I said, it's a perfect disc.
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on February 11, 2008
Herbie Hancock mining musical forms outside the Jazz canon should not be either a surprise nor source for concern among traditionalists. Whether exploring Electronica harder and more boldly that most of his contemporaries in the Seventies--except, of course, for Miles--or getting involved with Hip-Hop or nodding to Pop, Hancock's work may not always be of everyone's liking but it can always claim honesty and quality.

With Joni Letters, this is confirmed ... more yet, this is taken to another level of excellence. Having worked with Mitchell already in her album dedicated to Charles Mingus tunes, Herbie returns to Joni's songbook to reinterpret it, to sculpt new possibilities out of her poems--to call them lyrics might leave you with a limited impressions of the beauty and depth of her words.

The arrangements are bold yet always faithful to the originals. Edith and The Kingpin--probably the best track in an album full of gems--turned into a dark Jazz ballad and sung remarkably well by Tina Turner, Leonard Cohen reading The Jungle Line with a sense of sinisterness that those lyrics may not have revealed before, or his treatment of Both Sides Now are sufficient proof of it.

In addition to these tracks there's plenty more to bow to. Luciana Souza's rendition of Amelia is impeccable and soulful as well as River sung by Corinne Bailey Rae--although my nod for best version still goes to Madeline Peyroux and kd lang.

Last but definitely not least, there's Wayne Shorter sounding as lyrical and fierce in all the right places, and master Hancock himself. Herbie's playing is truly stunning throughout the record, confirming yet again his place among the greatest pianists of any genre.

If you are into Jazz but not Joni, this is where you'd want to come in. Even if the opposite is so for you, again, this is the right door to open. Welcome to the work of two geniuses.
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on November 18, 2007
Lovers of jazz will need no introduction to Herbie Hancock. Maverick pianist from the days of the Miles Davis quintet, preferred keyboardist of the Davis fusion years and central energy of the seminal funk-jazz crossover album Head Hunters. Herbie Hancock has never been afraid to experiment with forms and genres, to explore the possibilities inherent in different musics. However fans of Joni Mitchell may not be so well acquainted with his work. Though Joni has never been an artist to shy away from incorporating elements of jazz into her folk and rock idiom she has never quite made the step from those idioms to jazz.. All of which makes the new Herbie Hancock recording, River: The Joni Letters an intriguing listen.

For this album Herbie Hancock has assembled an eclectic mix of musicians. Saxophonist Wayne Shorter, his fellow traveller from the fusion years, bassist Dave Holland, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, and west-African guitarist Lionel Loueke. There are also appearances by a number of leading luminaries, Tina Turner, Corinne Bailey Rae, Luciana Souza, Norah Jones and Leonard Cohen. Mitchell herself guests on a track.

Projects like this can go astray, fall between the contrasting drives of their respective genres. Yet it is to Hancock's credit that this album delivers. It manages an adroit balance between accessibly and improvisation without sacrificing musical integrity. It plays with Hancock's jazzier instincts and the limitations of the rock and folk idiom. It elaborates on the subtlety of Joni Mitchell's melodies and provides a sophisticated setting for her often quite excellent lyrics. It manages to be neither a Joni Mitchell album nor a Herbie Hancock album. Instead it occupies a space somewhere between the two.

That is not to say it is without flaws. The title track, 'The River', comes over a little too sweet. Punching under its weight. Corrine Bailey Rae's vocals sound to my ears somewhat girlish, smothering the ironical longing of the lyrics; Also, Norah Jones's vocals on the opening track, 'Court and the Spark', appear at times to get lost, to sink below the music. And the final track, one of two bonus tracks, 'A Case of You', while infectious and cross referencing Afro-Pop, folk and R&B could be considered superfluous.

Stand-out tracks are 'Nefertiti', (a classic Wayne Shorter piece), Luciana Souza's reading of 'Amelia', (melancholy, rich and warm all at once), 'All I Want', (performed as a true jazz-spiritual), 'Edith and the Kingpin', (Tina Turner on a song that lets her voice show its range and capabilities), and Joni Mitchell herself on 'The Tea-Leaf Prophecy'. Special mention should be made of Leonard Cohen's reading the of 'The Jungle Line'. I approached this with trepidation having read that Cohen did not sing but recite the lyrics. However, despite his gravely, melancholy delivery, this track works very well. Just voice and piano, the piano returning again and again to the lower registers in an almost delta blues manner, and the voice, as would befit a man who is a published poet, ringing the nuances and levels of meaning from of the words.

This is not a jazz album in the purist sense. Neither is it a rock or folk album. What it is, is an album of contemporary adult music. Performed skilfully, with elegance and in a spirit of exploration. Those who criticise Herbie Hancock's flirtations with popular music should consider that in many ways he is being true to the roots of jazz. A music that, (before it entered the universities and museums) was a popular music and never denied its relationship with popular forms of self-expression.

This is an interesting and successful recording. It begs the question what further such projects could produce. A collaboration with Tina Turner, Luciana Souza or even Leonard Cohen?

River: The Joni Letters, is well worth having. A enjoyable addition to any collection for those who love music.
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on March 16, 2008
I've been a huge Herbie Hancock fan for years but have been a little disappointed with his 21st century output so far. I finally gave up on him after the dire 2005 album Possibilities. (I mean, come on. Christina Aguilera? Joss Stone? Really?). Anyway, as much as I love anything by the iconic Joni Mitchell, I didn't even look twice at this tribute album until it shocked everyone - including Herbie himself, it seemed - by snatching the 2008 Album of the Year Grammy away from people like Kanye West, who, as usual, assumed that it was his for the taking, and from Amy Winehouse, who seemed genuinely surprised that she'd been allowed to win anything at all. I was thinking two things as I placed my order: one, it's about time a jazz album won that award; and two, let's see if the album lives up to the accolade. The sound clips were promising enough but you just never know. Especially with jazz.

Personally, I think it does. It's absolutely stunning and Hancock obviously put it together with a lot of love, care and respect for Mitchell and her music. He only plays piano on this one and as brilliant as I think he is on electric piano, mini-moog, vocoder and all those other gizmos he uses so well, personally, I love Hancock's sound best when he's on regular grand piano. It's all very mellow, all very coffeehouse, but this is no smooth jazz album by any means. Hancock totally ups his game as he's joined by other legends like Wayne Shorter on soprano and tenor sax, Dave Holland & producer Larry Klein on bass, Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, Lionel Loueke & Dean Parks on guitar and Paulinho Da Costa on percussion. Able vocal support is lent by Norah Jones ("Court and Spark"), Tina Turner ("Edith and the Kingpin"), Corrine Bailey Rae ("River"), Luciana Souza ("Amelia"), Leonard Cohen (spoken word on "The Jungle Line") and from Lady Mitchell herself on "Tea Leaf Prophecy". All songs are written or co-written by Mitchell, except for the Duke Ellington tune "Solitude" and Wayne Shorter's classic "Nefertiti".

I'm really happy I picked this one up and I'm obviously glad Hancock won the Grammy as I might not have picked it up otherwise. Definitely his best work in a long while and well deserving of the award - in my opinion, of course.

PS. I highly recommend this 'Exclusive Special Edition' of the album because the two bonus tracks; the instrumental "A Case of You" and "All I Want", featuring a brilliant vocal performance by Sonya Kitchell (on probably the most Mitchell-esque song on here), are both well worth it.
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on February 11, 2008
With his 47th release in a breathtaking career, Herbie Hancock captured Album of the Year honors at the 50th Grammy Awards.

Make no mistake, this is not a lifetime achievement honor; River: The Joni Letters, is an amazing release - bolstered with two bonus tracks - featuring seven vocalists, including Joni Mitchell, in a sparkling tribute to Mitchell.

The cornerstone is Mitchell on Tea Leaf Prophecy, but a trio of selections make the concept click. Norah Jones brings a special elegance to Court and Spark, with Corinne Bailey Rae lending smooth blues to River and Sonya Kitchell providing a bouncy interpretation to All I Want.

The textures in Hancock's work on Solitude is a subtle masterpiece and Wayne Shorter provides a fresh sound to Nefertiti.

There are many highlights in Hancock's career; this CD again demonstrates his musical genius.
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on March 17, 2008
In 2005, Herbie Hancock released "Possibilities", an album of collaborations with acts as diverse as Joss Stone, Angelique Kidjo, Paul Simon, Damien Rice, and Sting to mention a few. Though jazz purists were peeved (much like they were with "Rockit"), I loved it (especially Damien Rice's killer version of Billie Holiday's "Don't explain"). The album was nominated for 2 Grammys of which it won neither.

Fast forward two years, and Herbie returned with "River: The Joni letters", comprising mainly jazz interpretations of Joni Mitchell tracks, with guest vocals by Norah Jones, Tina Turner, Corinne Bailey Rae, Luciana Souza, Leonard Cohen, and Joni herself. With a largely uncommercial sound, and sprawling pieces, most clocking way past the 7 minute mark, it surprisingly garnered 3 Grammy nominations including one for album of the year.

Well, we all know how it caused a major Grammy upset by taking the album of the year trophy from under the noses of Kanye West, and Amy Winehouse (who had won everything else she was nominated for) becoming only the second Jazz album to ever win in that category, as well as the Grammy for best contemporary jazz album. It also gave Herbie his first ever US top 10 album.

So, what's the album like? Like I stated earlier, sprawling, richly textured pieces with lilting percussion, bass, tenor sax (by Wayne Shorter), Herbie's magical tinkling of the ivories, and the tempo ranging from slow to extra slow. It is interesting to note that both Hancock and Wayne Shorter collaborated with Joni Mitchell on her Jazz album "Mingus" almost 30 years ago.

I was especially curious to hear what Tina Turner would sound like as she had declared an aversion for jazz and standards in the past, but she really sounds at home on her contribution "Edith and the kingpin". "The jungle line" features Rock and Roll hall of famer Leonard Cohen's dark and sinister narration (poetry-like) against Herbie's spare but sweeping piano backdrop.

The gently shuffling "Court and spark" features Norah Jones, the lovely "River" features Corinne Bailey Rae (giving a breathless delivery), "Tea leaf prophecy features Joni Mitchell, her age-lowered dusky voice perfectly fitting this interpretation (I love the bass and percussion on this one), and the haunting "Amelia" features Luciana Souza. The remaining four tracks are instrumentals with Wayne Shorter's sax solos providing the verses; "Both sides now" (nominated for best jazz instrumental solo), "Sweet bird", "Solitude", and "Nefertiti" (a Wayne Shorter composition with great sax and cascading piano sounds), perfect for a candle lit evening.

Having never heard the originals, I had nothing to compare it to, but I quite like it and find the album to be classy and intimate. I find it fitting that after years of experimenting and going against the grain, Herbie finally gets his dues.
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on February 11, 2008
Let's face it, covering Joni Mitchell is almost never successful. I've looked into pretty much every tribute album or cover (especially the ones by jazz musicians) and have almost always been left cold. Except for the most straight-ahead, pretty melodies (Both Sides Now, Woman of Heart and Mind, etc.), her music and especially her lyrics just don't translate well. Turns out all the cliches about her "idiosyncratic genius" are more or less true and you're always better off just listening to the original.

That said, this is a very pleasant disc with some very good covers and probably as good as it will ever get for a Joni tribute. I'd agree with others that Jones' Court and Spark is quite good, and I like Kitchell's sunny cover of All I Want. I never dreamed of Tina Turner singing Joni Mitchell, but her beautiful reading of Edith and the Kingpin is the best cover. All these really work. Souza's Amelia doesn't work for me - go directly to Hejira. Mr. Hancock's playing is beautiful throughout, and I admire his choice of tunes, including Sweet Bird.

Still, as admirable as the effort is, everything pales a bit after hearing Tea Leaf Prophecy in Joni's own voice - rich, tender, poignant and beautifully set by the playing of Hancock and Shorter.

We keep hearing that Mitchell's recording career is ending, and we've had her big, ambitious retrospectives. All very good, but all I really, really want is an album of Joni's singing over a subtle jazz band (ideally this one) - her songs, others' songs, I don't care much - but more along the lines of this version of Tea Leaf Prophecy. If there has to be a last Joni album, that's the one I want.
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on September 27, 2007
A quick check on the previous review. This is a subtle and deep performance by some of the finest musicians of our time, in honor of a colleague. It took my breath away, start to finish. Thanks to all involved. (I'd pay full price just to hear this spectacular remake of Wayne Shorter's Nefertiti; to have that with mixed with these intricate and surprising takes of some of Joni Mitchell's best work makes this one of the year's finest to date.) I call this one a must-have.
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on November 30, 2013
Herbie Hancock is America's poet laureate of the jazz piano. This recording is a mystical interpretation of the already intriguing songs of Joni Mitchell. If you are a ardent jazz music listener, this is an essential album.
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