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Herbie Hancock
River - The Joni Letters

Review By Todd Warnke
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  Some people should know better. Oh sure, the concept sounded good... "Hey, let's take Joni Mitchell songs and play them like jazz tunes. She already placed so many influences in them, including a lot of jazz, that they should port over easy as pie. And whom should we get to play them? How about Herbie Hancock? He can play anything. Of course, Wayne Shorter and Dave Holland can come along too. And let's find a half dozen or so other, "cool" folks to sing as well. Now let's see, with such a wonderful concept already in place, should we press 200,000 or 400,000 for the first run, and can I get a Chateau LaTour to go with my organic lamb?"

Well guess what folks, a great many ideas sound a whole better on the silent page then they do in a live recording studio. And somebody, anybody, should have listened to something besides the sound of cash registers before signing off on this one.

Alright, I hear you, "Why so bad?". Let me give me give one example that sums it up perfectly. Corrine Bailey Rae, whom I otherwise enjoy, takes on the title track "River" that stands as one of the cornerstones of Mitchell's work. The song is sung by a woman who has chosen career over love and knows it was as not even a Faustian bargain as she traded a sure thing for slim chance. But Rae sings it in full on innocence mode rather than as the clear-eyed adult that Mitchell places at the center of the song. So, when at about the 1:45 mark she goes actually tilts her voice up and sings, "wooo, ooo, ooo", I was a bit shocked. I mean is "wooo, ooo, ooo" jazz, much less Joni? But before I could fully digest that thought and almost exactly a minute later she goes, "wooo, ooo, ooo", again. And yet again 30 seconds later! I would have puked, except that I was laughing my ass off at the utter ridiculousness of it all. After all, how can you take as a serious an album that has a wimpy, child-like voice singing "woo, ooo, ooo" in the middle of "River"!

There are other errors nearly as bad, such as opening with Norah Jones attempting the wake up long enough to sing "Court and Spark". Or the fact that not once does the assembled musical talent offer up an insight on harmony, composition or melody line that Joni had not previously shown us - well, ok, once, but just barely. "Sweet Bird", one of Mitchell's more ethereal compositions, gives Shorter room to stretch and soar, but again, down paths that Mitchell had long ago illuminated. Lastly, who ever decided that Leonard Cohen had a place on a jazz album needs to be immediately dropped into the 7th rung of hell and forced to listen to Kenny G all day, every day.

(Editors Note: We like Kenny G. A little butter, some garlic, slow cook at 325 for about 6 hours... basting every 15 minutes. Frankly, i feel Kenny G is a bit too bland tasting for my pallet, but some feel he is a rare delicacy... like Michael Bolton or whatever 'flavor of the month' pop band that steals the sound of the 60's so that old geezer audiophile music reviewers can hold up high like The Next Coming.)

Still, there are several things that do manage to work quite well. First, Tina Turner covers "Edith and the Kingpin" and here song and artist are perfectly matched. Turner's voice (just like Joni's) is not what it once was, but if anything that allows her sense of how the world works and her weary wisdom to shine through even brighter. The tune was always one of Joni's most jazzy compositions, and here Turner gives it a subtle R&B twist, to which Shorter adds the perfect, pithy comments. Second, the band takes a wonderful run at the Shorter tune "Nefertiti". So, though I have no idea how it fits into a Mitchell tribute, I was thrilled to hear Hancock and Shorter reprise their roles from their mid-60's Miles Davis era. Oh yeah, the sound is great, audiophile grade even - though that ultimately only adds to the horror of it all.

So, back where we started, let me suggest an appropriate Joni Mitchell tribute jazz album. Let's keep Wayne Shorter and Dave Holland (Since Jaco is long gone), and I could even bring Herbie back though I'd rather have Brad Mehldau. Let's put Steve Gadd behind the drums and find someone with a particularly esoteric take on the guitar for that seat. As for singers, Turner definitely sticks around and even gets a couple more tunes. Give Margo Timmons of Cowboy Junkies a song or two as well, including "River". And if we must have a male vocal track, Andy Bey can take Leonard Cohen's slot - shoot, I can take his seat and it would be an improvement. But while my fantasy album may never be cut and even if it was it would sell a lot less than this one will, in the real world and if you love Joni, my advice is to avoid "River" like the piece of exploitive marketing hooey that it is.

 

 

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