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Reviewers: Don Mather, Tony Augarde, Dick Stafford, John Eyles, Robert Gibson, Ian Lace, Colin Clarke, Jack Ashby

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River: The Joni Letters

Verve 0602517448261




1. Court and Spark (featuring Norah Jones
2. Edith and the Kingpin (featuring Tina Turner
3. Both Sides Now

4. River (featuring Corinne Bailey Rae
5. Sweet Bird

6. Tea Leaf Prophecy (featuring Joni Mitchell)

7. Solitude

8. Amelia (featuring Luciana Souza)

9. Nefertiti

10. The Jungle Line (featuring Leonard Cohen) 

Herbie Hancock – Piano
Wayne Shorter – Soprano sax, tenor sax
Dave Holland – Bass
Vinnie Colaiuta - Drums
Lionel Loueke – Guitar

Having just revisited and reviewed Herbie Hancock’s remarkably assured debut album from 1962, it is rather disorienting to hear this, his latest CD. Whereas the first album was full of funky rhythms and memorable tunes, the new album consists largely of interpretations of songs by Joni Mitchell. Apart from some notable exceptions (including Both Sides Now, Woodstock and Big Yellow Taxi), Joni’s songs have usually struck me as interesting without being catchy. You can’t imagine them being whistled in the street by paper-boys. In truth, many of Joni’s songs meander, held together by the (often enigmatic) poetry in the lyrics rather than any melodiousness in the tunes. This makes them unsuitable for jazz improvisation, which generally needs a chord sequence containing enough substance to bite on.

In fact Herbie Hancock doesn’t so much improvise upon the tunes as meditate around them. He ignores songs from some of Joni Mitchell’s jazzier albums, like Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter and Mingus (even though the latter included Hancock and Shorter among the musicians). He reharmonises Both Sides Now, leaving only hints of the original melody. He also uses six guest vocalists (including Joni herself) who mostly imitate Joni’s style rather than interpreting the songs in their own way. Together with the similar drifting approach taken by the instrumentalists throughout the album, this makes for sameness – very different from the versatility we know Herbie Hancock is capable of. Leonard Cohen doesn’t even try to sing on The Jungle Line: he recites it, emphasising its resemblance to one of Rudyard Kipling’s verses. The eight Mitchell compositions are supplemented by two tunes – Wayne Shorter’s Nefertiti and Duke Ellington’s Solitude – which might have provided contrast, except that they are interpreted in the same unfocused manner as the album’s other pieces.

So what does this album add up to? Herbie Hancock is quoted as saying: "I wanted the lyrics to be the foundation for this whole project, for everything to stem from the lyrics and their meaning." But what do the lyrics mean? Many of Joni Mitchell’s lyrics are full of personal imagery or surreal flights of fancy. Their sense is often as indeterminate as the music with which Hancock and Shorter accompany them. Those who want to find significance here will find it somehow, but lines like "There’s a poppy snake in the dressing room" leave me as puzzled and unmoved as this album does.

Tony Augarde





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