2008-04-14 • Volume 2 • Issue 6

A Great Year for Jazz: Herbie Hancock’s River

The annual Grammy Award by the National Academy of the Recording Arts and Sciences has lost its prestige in the last twenty or so years. First there was Jethro Tull’s victory in the “Best Hard Rock Performance” category in 1989, over Heavy Metal giants Metallica. Add to that the list of great bands belatedly recognized by the Academy, including Pink Floyd, who didn’t win a Grammy until 1994, and it’s no wonder that in some circles the whole award show is referred to as the “Shammys.”

The 2008 Grammy Awards Show created its own type of controversy, but in a good way. Going into the night the two favorites for Album of the Year were Kanye West’s Graduation and Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black. Both albums were commercial and critical successes. Amy, a newcomer, seemed to be pitted against long time Hip-Hop star Kanye, in a battle against two very different strands of Pop music. But in a surprise move, the Academy awarded long-time Jazz great Herbie Hancock the top award for his 2007 release River: The Joni Letters, an album of covers and collaborations focused on the music of the great Joni Mitchell.

This move was met with shock and awe. Kanye yelled of being snubbed, and most people were mystified how an album of cover songs could even compete against the original work of two talented musicians. But a close look at Hancock’s latest release reveals that he truly deserved this great honor.

River is not merely a cover album, but more akin to a syncretistic masterpiece that combines the instrumental talents of pianist Hancock, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, and the vocals of some of Pop music’s most legendary performers. Joined by Norah Jones, Tina Turner and Leonard Cohen, among others, Hancock delivers an album of interpretation, not reproduction, that is a gift to Jazz aficionados as well as fans of Mitchell’s beautiful songs.

From the beginning of the first track, it is easy to tell that Hancock’s creative vision dominates River. The piano opens with a beautiful cadenza for the first dozen or so measures before the band kicks in. The rhythm section has a more concrete, rock-like feel, but Hancock’s piano remains abstract. When Jones begins to sing, her voice floats angelically above the calm pacing of the drums and bass. Each of the vocal tracks on River maintains this same musical aesthetic and only remain connected to Mitchell’s recordings by the words of the singers. In this way Hancock radically departs from the trappings of ‘tribute’ recordings.

The largest question surrounding River is its status as a Jazz recording. Should an album of folk rock ‘covers’ even be considered Jazz? When I first learned of Hancock’s latest work, I certainly doubted its validity as pure jazz, and while it is certainly unorthodox, I do believe that River qualifies as a bona fide jazz album. It possesses both swing rhythm and improvisation—the two defining qualities of the genre. What makes this recording such a success is how Hancock is able to incorporate Mitchell’s writings into his genre, not the other way around. If anyone should be disappointed, it should be the Joni Mitchell devotee.

If you’re a Kanye fan, rest easy. He will surely get his due credit. Even Amy Winehouse supporters should be calm. If she’s able to continue producing quality pop music, and out of rehab, she will have her moment in the sun. But this year in music is Jazz’s. It only comes once in a blue moon, so let us jazz-heads have our moment.

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