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Last year, at the fiftieth annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, just when everyone expected Amy Winehouse to slur her way through another acceptance speech via satellite from London, the award for Best Album of the Year went to Herbie Hancock for River: The Joni Letters, a meditation on the music of Joni Mitchell. Hancock, a Nichiren Buddhist, began his acceptance speech with a chant–“Joni Mitchell, Joni Mitchell, Joni Mitchell”–then quickly changed the subject. What he might have gone on to say is that since he first played with Mitchell in 1979, he has always been attuned to what many have called her “weird chords.” But he only recently began paying attention to her lyrics, and with River: The Joni Letters, he belatedly began a full examination of her musical soul. The album attempts to call a truce between virtuosity and popularity–between popular taste and taste itself. In Los Angeles, that truce was a victory for jazz: Hancock became just the second jazz musician in Grammy history to receive the Best Album honor. (The first was Stan Getz, who won for Getz/ Gilberto in 1964.) At the Grammy Awards, jazz musicians often ride in the back of the bus: the Best Jazz Album category is typically relegated to a separate B-list ballroom ceremony that isn’t televised. At 67, Herbie Hancock, a tireless barrier breaker, had done it again.
Before his acceptance speech, in a duet with the classical pianist Lang Lang, Hancock performed a “Rhapsody in Blue” that segued from a classical stretch into a Gershwinesque improvisation–an approach consistent with a career pattern that started in 1951 when, as an 11-year-old piano prodigy, he played a Mozart movement with Rafael Kubelik and the Chicago Symphony. By the time Hancock joined Miles Davis’s “second great quintet” in 1963–“Nice touch,” rasped the typically laconic Davis to Hancock, which meant “You’re in”–his eclecticism was insatiable. As generations have passed and rock ‘n’ roll, funk and hip-hop have drowned out jazz’s place in popular culture, Hancock has been neither ashamed nor abashed to test his formidable chops on the latest musical thing. His dance tunes gyrate with adolescent verve; his commercial instincts are often impeccable and just as often shameless.
During the 1970s Hancock played with the Head Hunters, whose name was a racial epithet flipped into a moniker of pride, a gesture that anticipated hip-hop by more than a decade. Hancock and the band gave the world “Chameleon,” a song that still belonged to the discos and the streets long after it was released in 1973. It starts with a Moog bass line that doesn’t quit, egged on by funky drumming. Hancock wails on the Fender Rhodes, the ARP, the Hohner clavinet. It took a lot of electronic gear to fill in for a piano. Yet Hancock hadn’t abandoned his classical touch: taking a simple musical idea introduced by a single instrument (the Moog bass) that swells into a multi-instrumental crescendo, “Chameleon” is a funked-up “Bolero.” Behind it all are the trademark “Herbie chords,” adding hints of atonality without abandoning melody, embracing lyricism while eschewing sentimentality. Hancock can invoke Debussy and Ravel in his chord structure and still get funky when the mood strikes. Like the lizard of the tune’s title, he is an adaptive creature.
Unlike Miles, who refused to return to acoustic jazz once he left it behind in 1968, Hancock has boomeranged from acoustic piano to the newest synthesizer, from a VSOP gig with his Miles classmates to prospecting for the next electronic hit. He found it in 1983 with “Rockit,” a song whose popularity was boosted by a creepy Goldey and Crème video in which Hancock’s image is relegated to a television monitor upstaged by mannequin limbs rocking to a simple melody set to an electronic beat, mix-mastered records and all. Paul Simon once sang that every generation throws a hero up the pop charts. Very few of them have been jazz musicians. For those of us who got our childhood musical information from early MTV, “Rockit” was a strange introduction to Herbie Hancock, but no less so than seeing River: The Joni Letters steal the spotlight from Amy Winehouse and her beehive nearly twenty-five years later.
Crossing over doesn’t always pay off–even for Hancock, jazz’s savviest CEO. Jazz, unlike pop, cannot subsist on shamelessness alone, and River: The Joni Letters, while imperfect, is the culmination of an experiment that began with the impeccably flawed The New Standard (1996) and continued with the sumptuous Gershwin’s World (1998), a kind of musical purgation. On Gershwin’s World, Hancock and his special guests play standards by the title composer along with tunes by Ellington (“Cotton Tail”) and James P. Johnson (“Blueberry Rhyme”), among others. Stevie Wonder busts out W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues,” a thrilling summit meeting between Stevie chords and Herbie chords, and one example of why Gershwin’s World is an irresistible and wonderfully unpredictable pairing of musicians and composers. Hancock’s rhythms and attacks–how he approaches each note of familiar repertory–are as idiosyncratic as his chords. Gershwin, whose melodies and rhythms jazz musicians love to raid, and who needs no transfiguration, is transfigured nevertheless. Hancock tells all the truth and tells it slant.
Joni Mitchell sings two tracks on Gershwin’s World: “The Man I Love” and “Summertime.” In both tunes, Hancock’s piano lines are so ornate that Mitchell has to land in the few counterintuitive spots left for her. “Someday he’ll come along, the man I love,” she sensuously rasps, perhaps launching a dart at her sideman. Voice and piano compete for space and find an entente. Hancock had introduced Mitchell to this kind of radical rhythmic and harmonic shake-up in 1987, when he invited her to sing a drastically recast version of “Hejira,” which she had first recorded in 1976, as an up-tempo samba for broadcast on a Showtime program he was hosting. She had to just trust the musicians around her, including Hancock and saxophonist Wayne Shorter, and dive right in; vocalist Bobby McFerrin would be standing by her too, grounding her with every falsetto utterance. Mitchell’s performance on Gershwin’s World received raves, but it took years until she could bring herself to listen to it; she was stunned that she could channel her inner Billie Holiday in the midst of such dense pianism. Hancock was overwhelmed. He told her she was the best jazz singer alive.
The New Standard is more of a problem, a failed experiment. The album features stellar playing, particularly by Hancock, who on the lead track, Don Henley’s “New York Minute,” plays with cunning virtuosity, not to disguise his banal source material but just to show off. I can make Don Henley swing! Here he is in double time! Whoooosh! The album’s subsequent selections and pairings are equally irresistible and unpredictable, including a delicate, bluesy take on Nirvana’s “All Apologies” with guitarist John Scofield strumming electric sitar. Stevie Wonder’s “You’ve Got It Bad, Girl” is reconceived for an extended rumination that includes allusions to Miles’s recording of Hancock’s “Riot.” While the album contains stunning playing–and songs like Wonder’s need no help–it’s mostly precious. Herbie chords, along with his sweeping cadenzas, stoop to lend credibility to pop songs that don’t lend themselves particularly well to the sobriquet “new standards.” How clever, how sophisticated; but why?
Starting with Bitches Brew, Miles would subtitle his albums “Directions in Music,” which did not necessarily bode well. Miles seemed smitten with the notion that his music was so heavy that it transcended the limits of a single LP. He had found a new way to turn his back to the audience while he performed. Hancock made a similar statement about his work starting with Gershwin’s World–his recordings would not merely be collections of songs but major statements. On The New Standard, it’s a platform with a trapdoor. Besides, Miles was downplaying the fact that some of the greatest recordings he ever made were the four albums he cut in a single session just to fulfill his Prestige contract–Workin’, Cookin’, Steamin’ and Relaxin’. Quality, in other words, is no slave to ambition.
Because of many years of deep musical empathy between Mitchell and Hancock, and because Hancock has made so many wise decisions, there is more cause for admiration than complaint about River: The Joni Letters. Quality and ambition play a rich duet. Hancock apparently directed each supporting musician–including the weird, precise and brilliant Wayne Shorter, who has been reading Mitchell’s musical mind on a regular basis since their first collaboration in 1977, and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, who toured with Mitchell in 1983–as though each were an actor offering an interpretation of a part. And the interpretations often go way off script, as a music based in improvisation should. Shorter was a particularly crucial choice. Between 1959 and 1968, when he was the house composer for Art Blakey and Miles, and making a string of brilliant Blue Note albums under his own name, Shorter forever altered the language of jazz composition. Later, when he was being pushed further into the electric din of Weather Report, he got the call to play with Mitchell, first on Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter (1977) and then on every album that followed, except for Shine (2007) because he was unavailable.
On River: The Joni Letters, Hancock approaches Mitchell’s music in a different spirit than he did with most musicians’ tunes (Stevie Wonder’s excepted) on The New Standard. After all, Mitchell’s music certainly didn’t need to be rearranged to be complex. “River,” the title track, from Mitchell’s 1971 album Blue, is a sublimely downtrodden anti-Christmas song. Like the narrator of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” lamenting Hollywood’s snowless winters, the song’s narrator, stuck in her Laurel Canyon pop-star pad, suddenly becomes nostalgic for her Central Canada girlhood, where it seemed that all it took to escape was a frozen river. The pop star ingénue, selfish and sad, wishes she could re-create her childhood climate just so she could put on a pair of skates and make her baby cry. “River” is a morbid serving of schadenfreude, but the imagery of the lyrics and the melancholic yet melodic attack of Mitchell’s mellifluous voice keep the song from falling over the edge and sinking into mere self-pity. When, since Keats, has melancholy been so beautifully distilled? And what could even a powerhouse like Hancock add to something so subtle yet so raw?
Hancock and Mitchell first worked together on Mingus in 1979, a project Mitchell undertook with the great composer and bass player Charles Mingus while he was dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease. (He didn’t live to hear the completed record.) Mitchell had been edging toward jazz in her previous albums, and Mingus–which began with her producing a vocalese setting of Mingus’s melodies, all composed by weakly singing them into a tape recorder–brought her closer still. Mingus was not in top form during their collaboration, and eventually the work left him unable to speak; many of his wishes for the collaboration remained a mystery. And so without Mingus to guide her, she leaned on a roster of Miles Davis veterans (with the exception of Jaco Pastorius) who would take her as far as she wanted to go. Hancock, on the Fender Rhodes, an instrument no Mingus sideman ever used, gave as much as he could on an album with no real solos. You can hear Hancock waiting for a space, then grabbing it for a dazzling, well-wrought riff; behind songs like “Sweet Sucker Dance” and the classic “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” his lines sound like complicated questions for which only he could provide the answer. Yet more than any musician on the album–even bassist Pastorius, who seemed to use the Mingus material as an excuse for virtuosic fretless digression–Hancock pushed Mitchell along on the crossover. She used her voice to summon the life and channel the soul of a recently deceased jazz giant–she sang about triumphs on Fifty-second Street and staring down death in Mexico. After Mingus Mitchell drifted away from jazz, sometimes running aground on a wave of synthesizers. But jazz didn’t drift away from her: the lyrics she sang on that album are still sung at Mingus Big Band performances, and Hancock would come calling again in 2007.
If River: The Joni Letters were an instrumental album, it would be nearly flawless, but, of course, it would also miss the point. Hancock has said that before the album, he had never thought seriously about lyrics–a startling admission. One way to approach River: The Joni Letters, then, is to listen to it as Hancock’s first attempt to integrate lyrics into his already fecund musical atmosphere. (An ill-conceived Carnegie Hall performance with vocalist Sonya Kitchell last June was a reminder that Hancock’s learning curve is gradual.) On two of the album’s ten tracks, “Both Sides Now” and “Sweet Bird,” Hancock’s exploration of Mitchell’s lyrics is downright brazen. “Both Sides Now,” which appeared on Clouds (1969), is Mitchell’s most ubiquitous standard–more than 500 cover versions of it have been made by a staggering range of musicians (Dolly Parton, Frank Sinatra, Doris Day and Dizzy Gillespie are just a few). Hancock must have counted on ubiquity for a subtle interpretive audacity–turning the song, which is, broadly speaking, about fantasy and reality, into an instrumental tune that is as ruminative as it is oblique. It is only at the track’s midpoint when a few bars of the melody are stated, as if this elliptical instrumental interpretation were somehow operating beneath the song.
In the less well-trod “Sweet Bird,” from The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975), Mitchell, a lonely painter, sees narrative in a face–“Behind our eyes, calendars of our lives, circled with compromise”–while also remarking about the “vain promises on beauty jars.” But the song is not about vanity: it’s about being acutely aware of time. “I lay down golden in time,” sings Mitchell in the original, “and woke up vanishing.” In Hancock’s version, it’s the lyrics, among Mitchell’s masterpieces, that have vanished. But the melody, stated by Hancock and Shorter, converses instrumentally with one of Mitchell’s most beautiful lines: “Sweet bird of time and change you must be laughing.” Hancock and Shorter attempt to capture that mood like lightning in a bottle. They move past the melody and on to synchronicity, trading phrases and then piecing them together, the whole exchange dominated for a few bars by Shorter’s breath–like an introspective, perhaps ironic laugh from that sweet bird of time and change–before fading out on Hancock’s vamp.
“The Tea Leaf Prophecy” first appeared on Mitchell’s Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm (1988) with a couple of dueling synthesizers and a backing chorus of Wendy and Lisa (from Prince’s Purple Rain-era band) singing the old folkie slogan “Study war no more.” On River: The Joni Letters, the synthesizers, the backing vocals, even the saying have been stripped away. The 2007 version was recorded shortly after Mitchell’s mother, Myrtle McKee Anderson, died. The original recording used a pseudonym: Molly McGee; Hancock’s version reverts to Myrtle McKee. The song is haunting, a pop song staking out prophecy yet imbued with melancholic tones.
While World War II rages on–“Newsreels rattle the The Nazi dread” are the opening words–Myrtle McKee, getting her tea leaves read, is told, “You’ll be married in a month.” McKee’s response, “These leaves are crazy,” is timed like a punch line, as is her description of the town’s remaining males: “Just frail old boys and babies/Talking to teacher in the treble clef.” A “young flight sergeant on two weeks’ leave” tells the song’s ingénue (the songwriter’s mother), “Myrtle McKee, no one else will do,” thus not only sealing the deal but fulfilling the prophecy of those crazy leaves. But the song’s refrain, “She says I’m leaving here/But she don’t go,” makes it clear that she finds the whole business of domestic life in the Canadian plains unbearable. She speaks of shoveling snow, listening to the radio, which turns into the television, which turns into the maternal advice “Don’t have kids when you get grown,” advice that the artist simultaneously rejected and fulfilled. Such personal and worldly business could not have found more empathetic accompanists than Hancock and Shorter. Hancock fills in Mitchell’s spaces with delicate splashes of harmony. Shorter’s melodic solo tells a story of its own, almost a minimalist counterpoint–the same portrait with a few brush strokes. Mitchell, sharing rhythmic space with Hancock’s ensemble, holds her voice back, which gives her more breathing room to maximize emotional ambiguity. This song has everything: life and death, love and marriage, war and peace, Nazis and Hiroshima, along with nostalgia and regret, mourning and melancholia.
Besides Herbie chords–and Herbie vamps and Herbie solos–River: The Joni Letters features a wide-ranging roster of vocalists. Norah Jones, singing the title track of Court and Spark (1974), takes the reverential route, her sultry country mannerisms perhaps shifting the regionalism of the song but certainly missing the meaning. It’s a different story with Tina Turner, who sings “Edith and the Kingpin” from The Hissing of Summer Lawns, an album that represented Mitchell’s hard-won shift from songs of passion and heartbreak to detached yet thrilling third-person narratives. “Edith and the Kingpin” wanders way beyond the expected heartbreak ballads, telling a story–really just a gathering of fragmented scenes–about a Kingpin (a director of chorus girls? a pimp?) and one of his charges. The narrator wonders why Kingpin is holding her hand so tight. Love, or at least lust, is for sale. Yet at the end of the song Edith and Kingpin are unable to take their eyes off each other. “They dare not look away,” goes the refrain, soaring in Mitchell’s version, sweltering in Turner’s. Mitchell’s seemed untouchable in its sublime sleaze. Turner’s matches it by riding a delicate and appropriately nasty blaxploitation groove: the wah-wah pedal darts in and out while the Herbie chords splash and simmer, giving way to a solo that seems to reinvigorate the sordid tale. No words can describe the way Turner sings “fresh lipstick glistening” or the way Shorter provides a kind of translation of that phrase–subtitles in the language of the man who has called himself Mr. Weird.
On the album’s last track, Hancock’s piano supports Leonard Cohen’s spooky, gravelly spoken-word performance of “The Jungle Line,” also from The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Herbie’s vamp is so melodic, it sounds like a free-standing composition, even as it lays back enough for breathing room–or, in Cohen’s case, growling room. Cohen is, along with Dylan, one of the small number of musicians Mitchell calls “pace runners.” He has no trouble keeping up, ingesting syllables one by one, maybe even smoking them.
My childhood introduction to Hancock began with “Rockit” at 11–“I could play that,” I thought, and I easily did. That was followed, at 13, by the release of the Round Midnight soundtrack, an album that earned Hancock an Oscar. I did not know enough to realize that the tenor titan Dexter Gordon sounded imprecise, sad and perhaps poignant for the wrong reasons. I tried to reproduce what I was hearing on the piano, but I couldn’t keep up with Hancock’s pace. On a moribund “Body and Soul,” where the rhythm section sounds like it’s keeping Gordon on life support, Hancock, along with guitarist John McLaughlin, settled into the well-known John Coltrane groove–ubiquitous in versions of the standard–with his own ingenious and distinctive accompaniment that added and subtracted notes in just the right places. When he finally soloed, it was delicate and understated.
I became obsessed with the title track, which introduced me to the sounds of Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. Then, on an album of Round Midnight outtakes called The Other Side of Round Midnight, released under Gordon’s name in 1987, I heard Hancock play a solo piano version of “Round Midnight” that kept me up past dawn. He is lyrical, and then he’s titanic. Then he’s lyrical again. Then he builds to the greatest and most theatrical cacophony, as if channeling Cecil Taylor for ten seconds. But he didn’t. It was either part of Hancock’s plan or a momentary, sublime burst of inspiration. What you heard was not what you got. He could give you everything and nothing. He was disappearing in the musical firmament. He was changing colors.