In celebration of the album’s first decade, Herbie Hancock’s poignant tribute to Joni Mitchell, River: The Joni Letters, was released as a 2-CD expanded edition with four bonus tracks on December 15, 2017 via Verve Records/UMe, with a digital release following on December 29. And last month, the album was released on vinyl for the first time in the United States.
As Hancock has long been a progenitor of the hi-res format with much of his vaunted catalog available in 192/24 and 96/24, we expect the upcoming expanded digital release of River to follow suit.
Upon its initial 2007 release, River was hailed by critics for Hancock’s thoughtful interpretations of Mitchell’s compositions, which he used as a jumping-off point for extended musical meditations. The New York Times declared it “an intimate reinvention issuing from someplace deep inside the music,” while NPR remarked, “Hancock is too smart to follow the tribute-record script. He doesn’t radically overhaul Mitchell’s songs — instead, he gently opens them up and lures the singers into fascinating free-associative conversations.” New York enthused, “Hancock comes to these songs with uncommon sensitivity and understanding,” adding, he “came of age when pop and jazz overlapped comfortably, and he’s at his best when he shows us how they still can.”
Hancock first worked with Mitchell on the acclaimed singer/songwriter’s 1979 Mingus record, an album comprised of collaborations between Mitchell and the great bassist and composer Charles Mingus. Together with Wayne Shorter, Hancock was part of the ensemble with which Mitchell tried to craft a new, “conversational” approach to coupling lyrics with instrumental jazz.
“At this point in my career,” Hancock said when the River album was announced, “I want to do something that reaches into the lives and hearts of people.” To that end, Hancock enlisted producer/arranger/bassist Larry Klein (a frequent producer and collaborator of Mitchell’s), to help him go deeply into Mitchell’s body of work to select songs that they could adapt to a genre-less and conversational musical approach, while trying to portray the breadth of Mitchell’s gift as a musician and writer. To add another dimension to their picture of Mitchell’s musical world, they also included two compositions that were important to her musical development: Shorter’s asymmetrical masterpiece “Nefertiti,” first recorded by Hancock and Shorter on Miles Davis’ classic 1968 album of the same name, and Duke Ellington’s prescient standard, “Solitude.”
Hancock and Klein worked for months, carefully reading through Mitchell’s lyrics and music, eventually paring their list down to 13 songs they hoped comprised a panoramic view of the poet’s work. They then assembled a group of the top musicians in the world, including the incomparable Shorter on soprano and tenor sax, the brilliant bassist and composer Dave Holland (a musical cohort of Hancock and Shorter’s who shared their adventurousness, as well as the Miles Davis imprimatur), drummer Vinnie Colaiuta (a then-recent member of Hancock’s band as well as having played extensively with Mitchell and Sting), and Benin-born guitarist Lionel Loueke, also a member of Hancock’s band.
They went on to craft arrangements for songs like the oft-recorded “Both Sides Now” and “Sweet Bird,” the latter from Mitchell’s 1975 classic The Hissing of Summer Lawns, that transformed the songs into lyrical and elegant instrumental tone poems, devoid of the trappings of conventional jazz records. “We wanted to create a new vocabulary, a new way of speaking in a musical sense,” Hancock said. Klein added, “We used the words to guide us. All of the music emanated from the poetry.”
They were also fortunate to be able to cast the vocal songs with some of the greatest singers in the music world. Mitchell herself sings the autobiographical musing on childhood “The Tea Leaf Prophecy,” Tina Turner turns the beautiful prose of “Edith And The Kingpin” into a timeless piece of song-noir, Norah Jones delivers the wistful classic “Court and Spark,” Corinne Bailey Rae turns the mournful Christmas classic “River”into an innocent and optimistic poem of bittersweet romance, Brazilian-born Luciana Souza becomes a dark third voice to Hancock and Shorter on “Amelia,” and in a stark and cinematic closer, Leonard Cohen recites the brilliant and surreal lyric to “The Jungle Line” as Hancock provides film score-like improvised accompaniment.
The 10th anniversary edition of River adds four songs of Mitchell’s, previously released as Amazon and iTunes exclusives. The extra tracks span Mitchell’s expansive career, including “A Case Of You” and “All I Want” (featuring Sonya Kitchell) from her 1971 masterpiece Blue, “Harlem In Havana” from her 1998 album Taming The Tiger, and “I Had A King,” the opening song on Mitchell’s debut record, 1968’s Song To A Seagull. “Harlem In Havana” and “I Had A King” are making their debut in any physical format.
River: The Joni Letters, won the 2007 Grammy Award for Album of the Year, only the second jazz recording to win the top honors in the award’s history, with the first being Getz/Gilberto by Stan Getz and João Gilberto in 1965. The album also won for Best Contemporary Jazz Album, and it also peaked on the charts at #5 on the Billboard 200.
This project represented a journey into a new world in Hancock’s search for fresh ground – a world of words – and now, with this new expanded release, fans can revisit this stunning album again and dive even deeper into Hancock and Mitchell’s timeless creations.
Order River: The Joni Letters here: https://UMe.lnk.to/HerbieHancockRiver
- Court and Spark (featuring Norah Jones)
- Edith And The Kingpin (featuring Tina Turner)
- Both Sides Now
- River (featuring Corinne Bailey Rae)
- Sweet Bird
- Tea Leaf Prophecy (featuring Joni Mitchell)
- Amelia (featuring Luciana Souza)
- The Jungle Line (featuring Leonard Cohen)
- A Case Of You*
- All I Want (featuring Sonya Kitchell)*
- Harlem In Havana*
- I Had A King*
* Bonus Tracks