In light of the in-depth commentary that previously appeared on this blog concerning Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters, I figured it was appropriate to mention that the album won a Grammy last night for Album of the Year. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I certainly did a double-take when I saw the results. (I didn’t watch the Grammys live.) I was certain at first that Hancock must have won Jazz Album of the Year, but I soon realized that I was wrong. Certainly, I was pleasantly surprised that a jazz album could win Album of the Year, but I’m not sure what it says – if anything – about the current state of the music industry. Perhaps it just says that the academy liked this album better than their other options, and because Hancock has several pop-oriented collaborators on the record, it was fair game for the Album of the Year category.
I’ve copied NPRs coverage of the win below. I think the write up is fine, but I want to point out one thing the writer says that caught my attention: “From a distance, River looks like another of those tribute projects that have become a depressing fixture of recent jazz.” What exactly do you think he’s talking about? Charlie Hunter’s Bob Marley tribute album? Dave Kikoski’s Beatle Jazz project? And, if that is what he’s talking about, can you make the statement on a national news program that it’s “depressing” without any further comment or clarification? It seems that the statement is problematic because 1) we really don’t know exactly what he’s talking about, and 2) he makes a sweeping generalization about an object that is unclear.
On ‘River,’ Hancock Skates Away with Grammy
All Things Considered, February 11, 2008 – Last night, the Album of the Year Grammy went to an underdog. Herbie Hancock‘s River: The Joni Letters is only the second time a jazz album has received the big award — the last one was Stan Getz’s Getz/Gilberto, 43 years ago. But for those who know the pianist, who has made thoughtful contributions to jazz in each decade since the 1960s, the unlikely honor isn’t really so unlikely.
For much of his storied career, Hancock has explored jazz, funk, hip-hop and all sorts of pop with renegade fearlessness. So it wasn’t exactly a surprise when he decided to take on the Joni Mitchell songbook. With help from a mighty band and big-name stars including Norah Jones, Tina Turner, and Leonard Cohen, Hancock set out to reframe Mitchell’s confessional songs — cornerstones of singer-songwriter music — in a jazz context.
From a distance, River looks like another of those tribute projects that have become a depressing fixture of recent jazz. But Hancock is too smart to follow the tribute-record script. He doesn’t radically overhaul Mitchell’s songs — instead, he gently opens them up and lures the singers into fascinating free-associative conversations.
It’s like there are two stories being told in these songs. One in Mitchell’s words, alongside a secondary narrative being told between Hancock and his longtime collaborator, the amazing saxophonist Wayne Shorter.
This isn’t a great jazz album from start to finish, especially compared with the towering LPs Hancock made for Blue Note in the 1960s. That’s why it’s strange to see it win the Album of the Year prize. As Hancock noted, it is completely different from what’s happening in pop music these days.
But who knows why it won? Maybe the Recording Academy is finally suffering from diva fatigue. Or maybe this time the music won out. Because the interactions on River are more thoughtful and spontaneous than most of what crossed the stage on music’s biggest night.