Noted jazz pianist records pop icon tribute, endures cries of 'sellout' from the jazz community, laughs all the way to the bank. You'd be forgiven for assuming Herbie Hancock's new River: The Joni Letters, a tribute to Joni Mitchell, fits such a neat profile. The history of jazz, after all, is littered with artistically questionable stabs at a wider pop audience.
But thankfully this River is much deeper than that. Hancock's association with Mitchell goes back to her groundbreaking 1979 album Mingus, which reimagined the ways lyrics (poetry, really) could work in the music of Charles Mingus. Similarly, River is an impressionist revision of the different musical hues suggested by Mitchell's poetry. The guest vocalists here generally come off well, especially when they depart from Mitchell's blueprint. Norah Jones is appropriately languid on "Court and Spark," and Tina Turner puts her stamp on "Edith and the Kingpin" and turns it into a colorful, funky tone poem. Mitchell shines with a radically different vocal take on her autobiographical "Tea Leaf Prophecy."
The real story, though, is the interplay between Hancock and his longtime cohort, saxophonist Wayne Shorter (bassist Dave Holland, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, and guitarist Lionel Loueke round out the band). The pair sounds telepathic on everything from an instrumental take of "Both Sides Now" to a beautiful reading of Shorter's classic "Nefertiti," transforming River into essential listening for more than just Mitchell's deservedly rabid fan base.