Depending on the day, Herbie Hancock might perform any number of roles. He's the nation's first-call jazz ambassador, a futuristic technology advocate, a dedicated educator, and of course, an American music luminary. Most of all, like all great artists he makes things new again. He did it for us with The New Standard, when he found the swing and the meaning in pop classics. He did it with his kaleidoscopic take on Gershwin's World-and took home three Grammy® awards for it.
Yet for all Hancock's accomplishments both in and out of music, there's one thing he'd never done. "I had never thought about lyrics before," he says. "Never." River: The Joni Letters is Hancock's journey into the world of words, his initiation as a man of letters. "I wanted the lyrics to be the foundation for this whole project, for everything to stem from the lyrics and their meaning."
Still, Hancock was careful not to take lyrical adaptation too literally. "One thing that we all agreed on was to be cinematic and dramatic in our interpretation of the lyrics," he explained. "Sort of like we were doing a movie score in many ways. Because when you're writing a movie score, you don't write every single nuance that goes on onscreen. If you do that it's kind of 'cartoony.' So sometimes we decided to just let the lyric be. The music should be the cushion, if anything, under the lyric, that supports it, so the lyric is the focus."
Mitchell's songwriting has given many listeners their most vivid and visceral sense of the relationship between words and music. Freely adapting Mitchell's entire body of work and expanding her musical and lyrical conversation, Hancock creates fresh metaphorical associations in her music and brings renewed life to her words. Hancock not only pays tribute to Mitchell's genius. He offers us the gift of hearing her songs reborn. Herbie Hancock the ceaseless innovator has produced an original kind of homage: River: The Joni Letters is a musical passion play on Joni Mitchell's total artistry.