When Herbie Hancock's masterful Joni Mitchell tribute album titled River: The Joni Letters came out in 2007, for numerous reasons unrelated to music I didn't spend as much time with it as I probably should have. I liked it just fine and being a fan of both Herbie and Joni the CD went dutifully into my collection, popping out periodically over the years for cursory listens in the background.... but, I honestly never took the time to really listen. There was a lot going on in my universe at that moment...
So, a press release from the folks at Universal Music Group announcing a 10th anniversary reissue of the album -- a tribute to legendary singer songwriter Joni Mitchell -- seemed a good moment to fix this and explore this remarkable album more closely. Complete with bonus tracks on CD and for the first time a vinyl edition. I have found River: The Joni Letters on Tidal in similar fidelity to the CD for the new deluxe edition version and there is a stream in 96 kHz/24-bit fidelity of the original album (more on that in a bit).
That River: The Joni Letters contains much fine and beautifully recorded music didn't surprise me; however, I was happily taken aback to learn of the impact this album had at the time. From the official press release we learn: "When Herbie Hancock's genre-defying River: The Joni Letters, won the 2007 Grammy® Award for "Album of the Year," beating out Kanye West, Amy Winehouse, Foo Fighters and Vince Gill, it was a victory for musical exploration, inspired musicianship and the kind of creative spirit that the legendary jazz musician has carried throughout his incredible and influential five-decade career. A true milestone, the album was only the second jazz recording to win the top honors in the award's history, with the first being Getz/Gilberto by Stan Getz and João Gilberto in 1965, 43 years prior. The musical tribute to the iconic Joni Mitchell, which also won "Best Contemporary Jazz Album," soared up the charts where it peaked at #5 on the Billboard 200."
So while I know that awards programs and such are often not an indicator of quality, the fact that the album reached #5 on the Billboard charts does indicate that the public connected on some level with this album. That is exciting given it is a jazz recording! And if some listener's minds were opened to jazz after hearing R 'n B / Pop legend Tina Turner's stunning take on "Edith and the Kingpin"-- a performance which underscores just what a fantastic singer she is (I'd love to hear a whole album of her doing jazz flavored tunes) -- then this album has accomplished more than to just keep the world focused on Joni's music. One of my other favorite vocal performances on River: The Joni Letters is by Brazilian singer Luciana Souza -- I was pleased to discover her presence on this collection as I had been turned on to her music over the past 10 years. Souza honors Joni's phrasing and rhythmic sensibilities on "Amelia" (from Mitchell's 1976 album Hejira) while maintaining her own richly toned individuality.
Two tracks that jumped out at me are on the set are also the two non-Joni pieces which fit perfectly in context with the vibe of the record: Duke Ellington's "Solitude" and featured saxophonist (and former Miles Davis alumni) Wayne Shorter's "Nefertiti." The latter is such a moody swinging affair, it could be a soundtrack for a modern day film noir movie, dark and brooding, with lots of shadows and light; I use those terms specifically as they were no doubt important to Joni as the title of a song (from 1975's Hissing of Summer Lawns) and subsequent live album where many fans first connected with her jazz muse (her band at that time included legends in the making like Jaco Pastorious, Pat Metheny and Michael Brecker).
Getting to the sonic part of this review, the new CD sounds fine, big and rich as modern day digital disc releases go, it sounds real good in the car in particular. The happy surprise for me came while listening to the 96/24 stream of the album up on Tidal: there I hear a more complete representation of the music which is evident from Mr. Hancock's resonant opening piano notes of "Court & Spark." The high resolution tracks just sound more like a real piano than the compressed 44.1 kHz, 16-bit CD. Nora Jones' voice on that song also sounds fuller and richer on the Tidal stream than the CD. Wayne Shorter's saxophone also sounds rounder and fuller on the 96/24 version.
How does all this compare to the vinyl? It is a tradeoff, I'll be honest. The standard weight vinyl pressing I received is mostly fine and sounds real nice when you turn up the volume on your amp a bit. I experienced a bit of surface noise at the start of side one but that fortunately disappeared quickly. The albums are well centered which is essential especially for piano based music -- an off center disc can create really annoying (to my ear) wavering in the notes.Different sounds came out at me on the vinyl listen, such as the haunting guitar volume swells toward the end of "Sweet Bird." The cover art is lovely, with a near laminate style finish that is shiny and does justice to the nice photography and design, mostly lost on the tiny CD cover.
So just depends on how you like to listen: if you want a non-stop experience, then get the CD or if you have a reliable high speed Internet connection with unlimited bandwidth, then choose the stream (I had some hiccups on my stream, but your experience may vary). If you don't mind switching sides and want some analog warmth added in your mix especially if you have a tube pre-amp, spring for the vinyl. Maybe someday there will be a high resolution download or Blu-ray Disc version available.
There is a nice making of video I discovered up on YouTube which shows footage of the band behind the scenes while recording the album. Vinnie Colaiuta appears to be really enjoying the session, which comes across in his playing and its nice to see bassist Dave Holland in action. Here is a link to a nice live set from this period featuring Joni with Herbie and his band.
Some of you may be wondering about the CD bonus tracks? I very much enjoyed Sonya Kitchell's take on "All I Want" -- she apparently toured with Mr. Hancock on the tour supporting this album back in the day. The other instrumental tracks are typically great jams ("Harlem In Havana," "I Had A King") with great interplay between Hancock and Shorter as well as drummer Vinnie Colaiuta (who swings more on this album than I ever heard him do during his time with Frank Zappa's band back in the day). I especially like this jazz-tinged interpretation of "A Case of You."
The River: The Joni Letters is very much a musical love letter and one which warrants your attention if you -- like me -- might have missed it in the past. Whether you are already a fan or are revisiting, this reissue is quite welcome. About the only thing I could want more from this is a surround sound remix. Maybe someday...