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.
Continue reading Herbie Hancock v. Ben Ratliff