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When Joni Mitchell started moving beyond the guitar and piano settings of her early albums and into more abstract realms on For The Roses, a lot of folk loyalists raised an eyebrow.  Where was the Lady of the Canyon, the ultimate Girl With Guitar?  There were little clues scattered all over that early work, though.  The open tunings, dissonant chords, and complex melodic structures that showed up as early as "Night In The City" on her debut.  Court And Spark found her melding jazz and pop in front of a group of session musicians that included Joe Sample, Larry Carlton and Tom Scott and those of us who were listening to a lot of the emerging contemporary jazz and fusion music were thrilled with this direction.  Between Court and Spark and the innovatively jazzy Hissing of Summer Lawns, she toured with Tom Scott and the LA Express.  That tour was recorded complete with extended instrumental passages on Miles of Aisles.  Then came Hejira, which veered away from the high gloss production and short, structured songs of the previous projects.  The instrumentation was sparse, driven, and colored by Jaco Pastorius' bass and Tom Scott's stark, spacious sax lines.  The songs were longer, all stories in themselves that together created the effect that the cover illustrates - black and white, suspended between the open road and the open sky.  It was the hardest one to get into at the time, and over the long term, it was the most rewarding.  Her next album took her further into jazz terrain, it was the result of collaboration with Charles Mingus that was interrupted by Mingus' death but left her with a group of songs that she recorded with a band that included Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter.  Now, almost 30 years later, Herbie Hancock has recorded an album of her songs and added two jazz songs she loved that were a strong influence on her work at that time.  River, The Joni Letters is a stunning experience because Hancock has taken a group of her songs that were not the most recognizable or accessible and showcased their longevity and relevance.  He has also put them in a setting that creates a deeper context for the work by combining vocals and instrumentals and creating a whole new landscape in the process.  He affirms what those mid-late 70s recordings illustrate.  Joni was more jazz than folk, a fact that was hard for a lot of her fans to swallow at the time, and something that still jabs at some comfort zones this many years after the fact.  Interestingly, the choice of singers and songs on this project may even be a point of reconciliation for some of those listeners.  This is a cohesive work of art that seems to tie some loose threads together. 

Hancock's co-producer and arranger is Larry Klein, Joni's long time collaborative partner and, for a while, partner in marriage.  One of Hancock's intentions going into the project was to shift the focus to the words.  He commented that as an instrumentalist since he began playing as a child his focus had always been on the instrumentation.  This time he wanted the words to be the foundation.  Together, he and Klein went through Mitchell's body of work seeking the songs they could adapt, whether the end result had words or featured instruments conveying the images and emotions those words would create.  Most of the material they chose was from the mid-late 70s: Court and Spark, Hissing..., and Hejira.  With a few from before and one from after.  Instrumentally, the mood and arrangements remind me of Hejira.  It's a small group featuring Hancock's piano, Wayne Shorter on sax, the brilliant guitarist Lionel Loueke, and bassist Dave Holland.  This group provides a thread of continuity through an eclectic group of vocalists and some seriously improvisational jazz.

There are stunning performances here.  Norah Jones' expressive rendering of "Court and Spark" evokes the same sense of distance and longing as the original without being imitative.  The way she delivers the last verse surrounded by an almost classical sounding Hancock solo and Shorter's sax is breathtaking.  Tina Turner's "Edith and The Kingpin" follows.  A completely different vocal quality from Jones but an extension of the same mood.  She sings with grittiness and subtlety that are perfect for conveying the atmosphere the song creates and quite a contrast to the high intensity belting she is usually identified with.  "Amelia," is sung by Brazilian born jazz vocalist Luciana Souza.  Her lovely voice sounds strikingly similar to Joni's but the phrasing is her own.  She captures the essence of the hurt and confusion that comes with realizing that what you thought was the love of your life was really "just a false alarm."  Leonard Cohen reads "The Jungle Line" as the poetry it is.  Stripped of the original version's percussive instrumentation the words gain more clarity and a new version of the story emerges.  The song Mitchell brings to this collection is one of her more obscure - "Tea Leaf Prophecy" from Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm.  Her voice is deeper and smokier here.  The arrangement lends it a Hejira-is quality that threads the time line from the 1970s, through the 80s, and seamlessly into the present.  Corrine Bailey-Rae's childlike vocals seem to glide winsomely over the lite neo-soul groove of her radio hits but to these ears, it's a hard fit on “River.”  She seems out of her league here, surrounded by singers who have such sublime vocal quality and interpretative skills.  Personally, I would like to have heard Sonya Kitchell, a young singer who will be singing some of these songs on a short tour that he is doing behind this album.  Vocally, she has depth and maturity beyond her years and her impressive version of "All I Want" is included as a bonus track in the version of the CD. 

There are four instrumentals available on all versions of the CD.  They are all done in a trio or quartet setting and on all of them Shorter's sax and Hancock's piano are simply indescribable.  They surround these words by going beyond words.  "Sweet Bird"s main melody line is turned into a hauntingly repetitive sax signature echoed by Hancock's piano.  "Both Sides Now" is inverted and reconstructed as an introspective improvisation.  "Nefertiti," a song that strongly influenced Joni, was originally recorded by Hancock and Shorter for the Miles Davis album of the same name.  They have rearranged it here to fit the soundscape of this album, which clarifies the influence that this song and jazz music in general had on Mitchell's songwriting.  iTunes is offering two more instrumentals, "I Had A King" and "Harlem In Havana," that are similar thematically and both clock in at over 8 minutes, making that version a true treasure for listeners who want to hear an expansion of the jazz themes in these songs, or perhaps be reminded of the fact that a lot of us did have Mitchell, Miles, Hancock, and Weather Report sitting next to each other on the shelf by our turntables back then. 

If there was ever a musician that I latched on to in the ways of a rabid fan it was Joni Mitchell.  From the time, I "accidentally" flipped the channel to a live performance on PBS when I was a teenager she was my surrogate big sister and undercover therapist.  As a girl with guitar doing the coffeehouse circuit at the time, she was also a source of musical inspiration and about half of my set list.  When you are that attached to an artist and the songs they create, you can become irrationally possessive.  My reaction when I hear that someone is going to cover a Joni song or do a tribute is neurotically territorial.  Handle with care and don't mess it up.  Our little group of local singer/songwriters used to talk a lot about whether our identification with Joni was healthy.  Were we cultivating neurosis or examining it in an intelligent manner, which provides a much more interesting perspective than the medication induced perkiness that is prevalent today.  As she wrote in "Lesson in Survival" - "When you dig down deep you lose good sleep and it makes you heavy company."  Herbie Hancock always digs deep and brings something beautiful and original to any song he chooses to interpret.  It's not a matter of doing justice to the material.  With Hancock that's a given.  What he has done here is illuminated this group of songs, illustrating how timeless they are and how much they have to offer an artist with such interpretative skills and a listener who wants substance, challenge, and listenability all in the same package.

- Shannon West

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