River: The Joni Letters finds Hancock, at the top of his considerable game, interpreting music written by (or somehow associated with) Mitchell with his passionate piano work leading a crack quartet including Wayne Shorter on saxophones, Dave Holland on bass, Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, and Lionel Loueke on guitar. The playing throughout is expressive, compelling, and sweetly simmering.
Joni’s poetic lyrical prowess is undisputed but equal attention is given to her amazing melodic gifts as well here. Some of the tracks…arranged and produced by Hancock and Joni’s ex-husband Larry Klein… are instrumentals while others feature an eclectic variety of accomplished vocalists.
“Court and Spark” leads off and features a fine vocal by Norah Jones and that’s followed by a stunning version of “Edith and the Kingpin” featuring a beautifully subtle vocal by the one and only Tina Turner over a tasty, gently-swinging groove deftly anchored by Hancock and Shorter.
Hancock plays solo on “Both Sides Now” for two very lovely minutes before the drums, guitar, and bass slip softly onto the track and coax it along to the point where Shorter joins the sweet fray and brings a lilting counterpoint to Hancock’s sweet playing. Shorter’s sax dances delightfully over, through, and about Hancock’s assured melody on the engaging version of “Sweet Bird”.
Duke Ellington’s “Solitude” features Hancock’s piano subtly but powerfully supported by
Corinne Bailey Rae more than holds her own with the remarkable band on the title track while Joni herself brings her smoky, but still utterly compelling, voice and phrasing to “Tea Leaf Prophecy” (co-written by Mitchell and Klein). Shorter and Luciana Souza duet…his shimmering sax, her sultry voice…on a plaintively powerful version of “Amelia” while Hancock and the legendary Leonard Cohen duet…the snaky piano of the first, the undeniable gravitas in the recitation of the second.
The disc ends with a sprightly take on “All I Want” with a soulful and playful vocal by Sonya Kitchell.
For jazz buffs, Joni buffs, Herbie buffs, music buffs…River: The Joni Letters is a grand record for all of them…for all of us…to savor and luxuriate in.