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Assisted Listen: Herbie Hancock's 'River'

Herbie Hancock won a big Grammy for <em>River: The Joni Letters</em>.
Valerie Macon
AFP/Getty Images
Herbie Hancock won a big Grammy for River: The Joni Letters.

Jazz legend Herbie Hancock won the Grammy for best album with River: The Joni Letters. Hancock has made "consequential music" in every decade since the 1960s, says Philadelphia Inquirer critic Tom Moon.

In his long career, Hancock has journeyed through the many worlds of jazz and scored a pop hit in the 1980s with the funk-based "Rockit." His latest record takes the work of folk icon Joni Mitchell as a point of departure. "What Herbie did is basically take these very beautiful vocal melodies and create a slightly different, but not often completely different, setting for them," says Moon.

In "River," Moon finds echoes of Maiden Voyage, the title track from Hancock's 1965 record — a disc he made after a stint playing with jazz great Miles Davis. Hancock's virtuoso skills serve him well here. Moon compares a clip from Mitchell's original to Hancock's version with Norah Jones on vocals. "When he gets a song that really pulls together a lot of what's great about Joni, something like 'Court and Spark,' he sets out a mood that any singer with a good ear can follow," Moon says.

The distance between Hancock and Mitchell's work may be shorter than you'd imagine, Moon says, thanks to Wayne Shorter. The jazz saxophonist has teamed up with each of them. "He's the most inventive improviser that we have," says Moon. "To hear him play into these songs, some of which he played on the original, is just great."

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