I’m listening to River: The Joni Letters, Herbie Hancock’s interpretation of Joni Mitchell songs that won the Album of the Year Grammy on Sunday. This was a surprise, if only because this little album had sold so few copies (50,000 according to Soundscan) and was facing the twin Goliaths of this year’s Grammy awards, Kanye West and Amy Winehouse. OK, calling Winehouse a Goliath is perhaps going too far.
But apparently it wasn’t a surprise to Ben Ratliff of the New York Times with whom I’m about to have an argument. Which isn’t smart on my part. Ratliff is knowledgeable about music, I bet even obsessive. Worse for me, from reading him, you can tell that he hears music with the keenest of ears. And finally, he writes about it clearly and intelligently. I’m a fan of his book “Coltrane: The Story of a Sound.” So I have no doubt that this is going to go badly…
OK. Tina Turner is singing “Edith and the Kingpin,” Wayne Shorter is finding some impish sax lines and Lionel Loueke has this funny clucking going on his guitar, while Hancock himself is enjoying himself by finding some chords that clearly amuse him. Tina Turner? Yeah, and she’s just fine, thanks.
Ratliff’s argument in the Tuesday New York Times: If a “jazz” album was going to win Album of the Year, it’s predictable that it was an album like River, because it resembles the non-jazz albums that frequently win — “soft-edged, literate and respectable.” And these are fighting words for jazz fans, though Ratliff also praises elements of River. But it’s not REAL jazz, he implies; it’s a combination of jazz and singer-songwriter. And jazz fans shouldn’t take any comfort in Hancock’s victory, by considering it some sort of sign of the form’s return to the middle of the musical discourse.
I’m not sure why they would, of course. When did the Grammy Awards signify to that extent? And when he goes on to speculate what the voters may have had on their minds when they voted as they did, he starts to slip in the scree of “can be understood” and “is often” and “could explain.” Of course, he doesn’t know. How could he? We vote the way we do, whenever we are enfranchised, for a multitude of reasons, some contradictory. We’ll never get to the bottom of this one, because, well, it’s not THAT important, and who could possibly know what’s on the minds of Grammy voters from one moment to the next?
But that’s not what I want to argue about with Ratliff, as Shorter continues to dazzle on the instrumental “Sweet Bird.” Hancock’s been working with these guys for a while (Dave Holland on bass, Shorter, Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, even Loueke), and for this set of mostly plaintive Joni Mitchell songs, you get the sense that they are listening intently to each other, adjusting their intensity levels, experimenting with the barest of marks, the breathiest of sounds, serving the singers (Norah Jones, Turner, Corrine Bailey Rae, Mitchell herself, Luciana Souza and Leonard Cohen) when their time comes around.
What I want to argue about is what I take to be implicit in Ratliff’s account: That the Grammy itself somehow indicates that River is a minor accomplishment, that the absence of “really assertive, swinging rhythm” indicates that it’s not pure jazz, that as he closes the piece by saying, River is merely “august and respectable.”
First things first: Hancock’s adaptation of Ellington’s “Solitude” has me in its grasp, and as Ratliff says, it’s “a complete reharmonization of a familiar song, with rhythm that keeps vanishing and reappearing.” Thanks, Ben! And now Souza’s sweet tone’s got “Amelia” measured.
So: Minor. Do I consider River to be a genre-changing work of art? No. Does it have its transformational moments? A very short list: Shorter in “Amelia” playing off the melody in the deftest of ways; Rae’s youthful, light limning of “I’m so hard to handle” in the title song, as though she’d just figured this out and for first time realizes that this aspect of herself causes her a certain amount of pain, but what are you going to do; and ultimately, the little utopian world that a great jazz ensemble suggests to us, the invitation to creative engagement with music, sure, but the world, our world, too.
“Chastened” drums. Somehow that’s how this one worked out. But you could argue that everyone’s “chastened” if you mean restrained. I wouldn’t call Colaiuta unexpressive here, though, or uncreative. He’s integrated, serving the songs, and in “Nefertiti,” the Shorter composition, he IS more assertive, even though that song somehow belongs in this Mitchell set, at least as Hancock’s ensemble performs them.
We’re at the last song: “The Jungle Line” and Cohen’s gruff recitation, “those cannibals with their shuck and jive, they’ll eat that working girl alive.” And Hancock in counterpoint slipping in and out of the lines. “August”? I don’t hear that. Dozens of other adjectives, but not “august.” It’s way too informal for that, almost casual, deferential even. No claims made. Nothing taken for granted. Joni Mitchell songs transformed by musicians of a high caliber, but not made somehow more emphatic. Just different. And respectable? A vague term. I suppose it means the opposite of “subversive.” But I find the creative act — in this case Mitchell’s and the Hancock ensemble’s — inherently subversive, undermining received “wisdom” and replacing it with … something else, or at least the promise of something else.
I suppose all I’m saying is that there are pleasures here, and Ratliff himself admits that. So what are we arguing about? I guess that he says it so begrudgingly. That the idea that there’s a cosmic scale of jazz purity or jazz importance available to adepts is irritating, not to mention wrong. This is a little album. It’s enjoyable. The Grammy doesn’t change that.