Dig this! Hancock tribute to Joni Mitchell rocks

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 October, 2007, 12:00am

Numerous rock musicians have dabbled in jazz over the years, but few have managed to earn the respect of the players they work with the way Joni Mitchell (right) did between 1974's Court and Spark and 1980's Shadows and Light.

She paid a price for it at the time. Court and Spark, on which she began to experiment with a jazzier approach but with plenty of catchy melodic hooks, was a hit, but 1975's more musically ambitious The Hissing of Summer Lawns was coolly received by the rock press. Although it's now widely regarded as one of her best, it marked the beginning of Mitchell's commercial decline.

Hejira in 1976 featured Jaco Pastorius prominently on bass, and his Weather Report colleague Wayne Shorter was an equally important presence on Don Juan's Reckless Daughter in 1977, but Mitchell's rock and folkie audience was alienated by the experimental music and sales suffered.

She lost even more of them with Mingus - which started out as a collaborative project with Charles Mingus but had to be finished without him after his death in early 1979 - but she still had Shorter and Pastorius on side, and began a friendship and occasional musical relationship with Herbie Hancock that continues to this day. That bond has led to Hancock's latest release River: The Joni Letters

on Verve.

This collection is a mixed bag and features a number of guest artists, some of whom are probably present for commercial reasons as much as musical ones. Vocals from Norah Jones, Tina Turner, Corinne Bailey Rae and Luciana Souza are respectable but tend mostly to remind the listener that nobody sings Mitchell like Mitchell, a point underscored by a vocal from the dedicatee herself on Tea Leaf Prophecy which had originally appeared on 1988's Chalk Mark in

a Rainstorm.

The vocals however, aren't really the point. Although Hancock says this is the first recording on which he has really gone into the music through the lyrics, several of the cuts are radically rethought instrumental reinterpretations. For Mitchell fans these recordings will take quite a lot of getting used to.

For Hancock's jazz audience, however, the good news is that there is a complete absence of electronic trickery, and a fine band of sympathetic associates including Shorter on tenor and soprano sax and Dave Holland on bass. Guitarist Lionel Loueke and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta are both regular current collaborators.

One guest vocal that is noteworthy is contributed by fellow Canadian 60s icon Leonard Cohen, who speaks his way through The Jungle Line, now stripped of its Burundi drums and accompanied only by Hancock's piano.

There are two non-Mitchell tunes, both of which were apparently influential in her musical development - Duke Ellington's Solitude and Shorter's Nefertiti. On the original Miles Davis recording of the latter, of course, Hancock and Shorter both played, and it's good to hear them reunited here. The reprise features some notably fine playing from both men and some inspiring drumming from Colaiuta.

It would have been nice if all the music recorded for the project had been made available on this disc. I have complained before in this column about the practice of record companies putting extra tracks unavailable to the rest of us on Japan-only CDs or favoured international distribution systems. In this instance, customers who order the album from Amazon.com get two 'bonus tracks' - A Case of You and All I Want - and if you choose to order through iTunes, which in Hong Kong remains an option restricted to those who hold credit cards with overseas billing addresses, you can order a version of the album with two 'bonus' tunes, Harlem in Havana and I Had a King, both available only to people buying the MP3 version of the whole album.

It's worth noting that Mitchell too has a new album out, released, like Paul McCartney's latest, by Starbucks, but available in record stores. Entitled Shine, it's not a particularly jazzy offering but it does feature some nice playing from drummer Brian Blade and saxophonist Bob Sheppard, among others.