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Assisted Listen: Herbie Hancock's 'River'

Herbie Hancock won a big Grammy for River: The Joni Letters. (AFP/Getty Images)

Jazz legend Herbie Hancock won the Grammy for best album with River: The Joni Letters. Hancock has made "consequential music" in every decade since the 1960s, says Philadelphia Inquirer critic Tom Moon.

In his long career, Hancock has journeyed through the many worlds of jazz and scored a pop hit in the 1980s with the funk-based "Rockit." His latest record takes the work of folk icon Joni Mitchell as a point of departure. "What Herbie did is basically take these very beautiful vocal melodies and create a slightly different, but not often completely different, setting for them," says Moon.

In "River," Moon finds echoes of Maiden Voyage, the title track from Hancock's 1965 record — a disc he made after a stint playing with jazz great Miles Davis. Hancock's virtuoso skills serve him well here. Moon compares a clip from Mitchell's original to Hancock's version with Norah Jones on vocals. "When he gets a song that really pulls together a lot of what's great about Joni, something like 'Court and Spark,' he sets out a mood that any singer with a good ear can follow," Moon says.

The distance between Hancock and Mitchell's work may be shorter than you'd imagine, Moon says, thanks to Wayne Shorter. The jazz saxophonist has teamed up with each of them. "He's the most inventive improviser that we have," says Moon. "To hear him play into these songs, some of which he played on the original, is just great."

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Transcript

ALISON STEWART, host:

If you're like me, you got an e-mail from iTunes suggesting you purchase the winners from the Grammy Awards. You know, I had a lot of them already - Alicia Keys, Alison Krauss, but not Herbie Hancock.

Now, when it came to album of the year, the 67-year-old Hancock's jazzy tribute album to Joni Mitchell bested top talent in pop, Winehouse - rock, Foo Fighters - country, Vince Gill - and hip-hop, Kanye. It's called "River: The Joni Letters." Here's the title track, "River" with vocals by Corinne Bailey Ray, who was nominated for best new artist at last year's Grammys.

(Soundbite of song, "River")

Ms. CORINNE BAILEY RAY (Singer): (Singing) It's coming on Christmas. They're cutting down trees. They're putting up reindeer and singing songs of joy and peace. I wish I had a river I could skate away on.

STEWART: Now considering Mitchell has released over 20 albums in her career and Hancock over 50, where does one begin? How does one begin to listen to this record with an educated ear?

Never fear. THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT's Assisted Listening series continues with music writer Tom Moon, who covers pop, rock and jazz for a variety of publications, plus he's a regular contributor to NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

Hi, Tom.

TOM MOON: Hi, there.

STEWART: So what period does the title "River: The Joni Letters" refer to? Where did "River" fall in Mitchell's career?

MOON: That's early. It's from "Blue," and it was one of a suite of really great confessional love songs, very introspective love songs she wrote on the record that really, people think how that's the sort of beginning marker of singer-song writer music. Most of that record is guitar or piano. Joni - very spare accompaniment, not a lot of bells and whistles.

STEWART: That's a little bit about Joni's background. Let's talk a little bit about Herbie Hancock's career. Now, when you think about Herbie Hancock as a musician and you try to explain what his contribution has been to someone who doesn't really know that much about, can you sum it up in a couple of sentences?

MOON: Well, first I tell them that he worked for a long time early in his career with Miles Davis. And if anyone know Miles Davis, they know he made a bunch of stylistic changes over the years. Herbie's done much of the same thing. Herbie plays incredibly rich piano. He's probably one of the most sophisticated harmonic ears in all of music. He's just got great ears. And he's used them in various different context through, you know, four or five decades. He's one of the few people who's actually made consequential music in, you know, every decade since the 1960s.

STEWART: Well you picked a track for us to listen to. Tell us what it is.

MOON: It's "Maiden Voyage," which is the title track from a record he issued in 1965 which many people in writing about this Grammy win have said, hey, where were you when "Maiden Voyage" came out? Now he had already been with Miles for a while at that time and was sort of assimilating some of the ideas that Miles was doing back in "Kind of Blue" and putting him into his own frame just a absolutely beautiful piece of music, "Maiden Voyage."

(Soundbite of song, "Maiden Voyage")

STEWART: So Tom, when you take the elements of Herbie Hancock who can make something like "Maiden Voyage" and a Joni Mitchell who can make something like "River" and you re-imagine them together, is it a successful mix? I know he got a Grammy and everything, but is it successful as far as you're concerned?

MOON: I think some of it is beautiful and, you know, obviously, Joni Mitchell's music itself is so rich and the materials she wrote after the "Blue" album which makes forms of the bulk of this Herbie album on her records like "Court and Spark" and "Hejira." Some of that music is already jazz-like in its harmonies and the way she has constructed it. And what Herbie did is just basically take these very beautiful vocal melodies and create a slightly different, but not often, completely different setting for them. And I don't think it's smash home-run, got to, you know, best jazz record of all time kind of record. A lot of it sits in the same tempo. It's not all incredibly fresh and interesting. But when he gets a song that really sort of pulls together a lot of what's great about Joni, something like "Court and Spark," he sets out a mood that any singer with a good ear can follow.

STEWART: Let's take a listen to "Court and Spark" - the original version which I'm sure a lot of people know. And then we'll listen to a little bit of the Hancock re-imagining of "Court and Spark" featuring Norah Jones.

(Soundbite of song, "Court and Spark" by Joni Mitchell)

Ms. JONI MITCHELL (Singer, Songwriter): (Singing) He was playing on the sidewalk for passing change, when something strange happened. Glory train passed through him. So he buried the coins he made in peoples park and went looking for a woman to court and spark.

STEWART: And now let's hear Norah Jones and Herbie Hancock's version.

(Soundbite of song, "Court and Spark" by Nora Jones)

Ms. NORAH JONES (Singer): (Singing) It seemed like he read my mind. He saw me mistrusting him and still acting kind. He saw how I worried sometimes. How I worry sometimes.

STEWART: Now, Tom, it's interesting. There's all these different vocalists. Norah Jones, Tina Turner, Luciana Souza - who I really like quite a bit. Yet there is a similarity to them a little bit to my ear.

MOON: Yeah. Well, and part of that is just what - I think Herbie's concept was to sort of create this very beautiful placid little creek bubbling by kind of musical setting and then bring the singers in and have them do what they would do. And part of the sameness, part of what sort of threads the record together is the dialogue between Herbie and the saxophone player, Wayne Shorter, who by the way, has played on a ton of Joni Mitchell records and sort of her number one foil. And so by having him and of course they played together - Herbie and Wayne played together with Miles and have collaborated a lot over the years - and so there's the conversation in the - that's going on in the words and what you actually hear the vocalist sing and then beneath that, there's this other conversation happening with Herbie and Wayne which is where I listen. I find that stuff to be amazing.

Wayne Shorter is just one of the most inventive improvisers that we have. To hear him play into these songs, some of which he played on the originals is just great.

STEWART: Is this a jazz record or a pop record?

MOON: Boy, is that a good question. I actually do not consider this a jazz record the same way "Maiden Voyage" is a jazz record. This is a record that will sit very nicely at a cocktail party next to the Norah Jones record or something by Cassandra Wilson. This falls into that sort of large undefined space of, you know, sort of American music.

STEWART: All right, Tom, you get to pick. What song should we listen to off of "River: The Joni Letters" from Herbie Hancock?

MOON: Well, you like Luciana and so do I. So let's hear her version of "Amelia" which is one of the songs from "Hejira," and again, just a beautiful song. Luciana really spent some time studying the original and wisely, I think.

STEWART: Big thanks to you, Tom Moon, music writer and contributor to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MOON: Thanks for having me.

(Soundbite of song "Amelia")

Ms. LUCIANA SOUZA (Signer): (Singing) People will tell you where they've gone. They'll tell you where to go. But till you get there yourself you never really know. Where some have found their paradise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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