Joni Mitchell’s connection to the world of jazz was well-established by 2007. Starting with her mid-1970s albums like The Hissing of Summer Lawns and Hejira, Mitchell began to incorporate more explicitly jazz-influenced arrangements into her music, employing greats of the fusion genre like Jaco Pastorius, Larry Carlton, and Victor Feldman. By the end of that decade, she had already paid tribute to one of jazz’s giants, Charles Mingus, with a tribute/collaboration album. Mitchell was more jazz than pop or folk by 1980, and for the next two decades, that would be Mitchell’s preferred genre to return to after dalliances with new wave and soft rock.
So it was only fitting that one of Mitchell’s close friends and occasional session musicians, Herbie Hancock, would pay tribute to Mitchell’s most jazz-infused compositions for an album of covers and collaborations with other admirers including Tina Turner, Norah Jones, Corrine Bailey Rae. Hancock managed to stage a few coups, including bringing in longtime session collaborator Wayne Shorter, former flame Leonard Cohen, Mitchell’s former husband Larry Klein as producer, and even Mitchell herself to perform on River: The Joni Letters.
Ironically, it was his work on the album that would prevent Hancock from guesting on what is to this day Mitchell’s final album, Shine. The two were working on their respective LPs throughout 2006 and 2007, and whether it was intentional or just a happy accident, both River: The Joni Letters and Shine were released on the same day: September 25th, 2007.
River finds Hancock at his most stripped-down. Famously known for his experimental approach to traditional jazz music, Hancock is a pioneer of electronic music and heavily incorporated new technology into some of the more stringent ethos of jazz. But Hancock had his roots in traditional acoustic piano playing, becoming one of the genre’s most radical thinkers when it came to harmony and chordal movement.
Hancock had made such an impression at such a young age that he was recruited to join the Miles Davis Quintet at the age of 23. Starting with the album Seven Steps to Heaven, Hancock continued to play with Davis sporadically throughout the next decade, including on the experimental release In a Silent Way, which helped pique Hancock’s interest in electronic instrumentation.
River: The Joni Letters includes some of Mitchell’s best-known compositions, including renditions of ‘Both Sides Now’ and ‘Court and Spark’, as well as some of her more obscure cuts, like ‘The Tea Leaf Prophecy’, ‘Nefertiti’, and ‘The Jungle Line’. The album is a supremely calming, almost startingly traditional jazz re-imagining of Mitchell’s work, with Hancock both faithfully recreating the melodies of the original songs and going off on an exploratory journey all his own. It’s a wonderfully pleasant listen, but in 2008, there was far more enthusiasm for the LP than even Hancock could have imagined.
That’s because, in early 2008, River: The Joni Letters became one of the five nominees for Album of the Year at the 50th Annual Grammy Awards. Although the Foo Fighters and Vince Gill also had nominations in the category, Hancock was mainly facing down the titans that were Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black and Kanye West’s Graduation. Both had been major critical and commercial successes on a level that Hancock’s modest tribute album couldn’t equal, so to call River: The Joni Letters a longshot to win would have been an understatement.
But just about everyone – including Hancock himself – was surprised when he heard his name read as the winner of Album of the Year. River: The Joni Letters had previously nabbed Best Contemporary Jazz Album, an award that seemed much more manageable for Hancock to land. Instead, he defeated giants of the contemporary music scene to take home one of the biggest awards of the entire ceremony.
In recent years, River: The Joni Letters has become an easy target for those who see the Grammys as being wildly out of touch with contemporary music. Album of the Year has a notoriously checkered history, and thanks to the major legacies behind Back to Black and Graduation, Hancock’s win is usually only talked about in dismissive or derisive ways today.
That’s unfair to River: The Joni Letters. While it’s certainly not the game-changing release that Back to Black or Graduation were, Hancock’s ode to Mitchell is still a compelling record 15 years later. Just because it’s not transcendent doesn’t mean that it’s not worth a listen. At worst, it’s an interesting re-working of one of the world’s greatest musicians taking on one of music’s greatest songsmiths. At best, it can serve as a catalyst to dive deep into both the sprawling eclecticism of Hancock’s work and the massively influential back catalogue of Mitchell.