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CD Review: Herbie Hancock's "River"

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Artist: Herbie Hancock
Album: River: The Joni Letters
Label: Verve Records
Release Date: 9/25/07

I haven't had a chance to review a release from a "living legend" until this album arrived in my PO box. Herbie Hancock seems like someone who has done it all: a jazz icon unafraid of technology, a winner of multiple Grammy awards and an Oscar, and a virtuoso live performer - but he's never been a lyricist, and had never made lyrics a focus or inspiration for an album. Hancock might have chosen easier material to interpret since Joni Mitchell's pseudo-poetry hasn't universally been thought of as accessible but it seems like he was up for the challenge of using words and letters (a reference echoed in the album title) instead of just musical notes as inspiration.

To tackle the project Hancock enlisted Mitchell's own collaborator/producer Larry Klein and a team of "the best": Wayne Shorter on soprano and tenor sax, Dave Holland on bass, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, and guitarist Lionel Loueke. Together this crew broke down each song, line by line, to discover nuances and themes for what was to become less of a tribute album to Mitchell and more of a set of completely new material.

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One of many things that Hancock has always excelled at is creating something that, although true to itself, can easily be consumed by a pop audience. Whether it was post-bop (think "Watermelon Man") or electro-funk R&B ("Rockit" and the entire album Future Shock), Hancock figured out how to connect. On River, Hancock's tactic was to line up professional vocalists who had either pop or cult status: Norah Jones, Corinne Bailey Rae, Tina Turner, Luciana Souta, and Leonard Cohen, and hey, even Mitchell herself sings a tune.

Other than Leonard Cohen's raspy narrative recitation on "The Jungle Line" all the vocal tracks are sung beautifully but this cavalcade of superstars seems like a bit of a cop out to me - did they really need to sell this so hard? Norah Jones? If you're going to go this far, where's the Amy Winehouse track? If you're a devoted fan of the any of the aforementioned vocalists, then you should hear what they did on this record as they will probably not have a chance to collaborate with Herbie Hancock again and I guess it's this 3rd party interest that the producers are counting on. If you're a fan of jazz, then this CD is a perfect opportunity to do what I did, and just enjoy listening to Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock play together, two masters doing what they do best.

More information and sample listening clips available at: Verve Records.