Joni Mitchell/Herbie Hancock
Joni Mitchell fans have been waiting for new music from her for years, and it seemed that she would never enter a recording studio again. The news about a new album sent shockwaves amongst not only Mitchell devotees but the music world, who have always waited impatiently to hear from one of the most gifted singer/songwriters of the 20th century. When she released her last album, 2002’s Travelogue, Mitchell stated that it would be her last. In the year since announcing her “retirement”, she concentrated on painting and living life away from any type of industry, music or otherwise. What brought her back to writing words to music again? The war in Iraq, and being in conflict with a world that seems to be moving faster in a downward spiral. The project would become her first album of new material in ten years, and as if no one knows this, she has a lot to say.
Shine is a 10-song album that pretty much sounds like nothing that has come out in the last ten years, save for maybe System Of A Down or dead prez. Mitchell has not moved into doing speed metal or hip-hop, but the lyrics expressed in these songs are from a woman who feels disenchanted with… it’s not so much life that is frightening, but the values and morals people have embraced for the selfishness of themselves. Her folk roots, and her passion to tell a great story, is still very much present in her music, but on this album she comes off as a blues woman who at times seems to be singing in mourning. That alone makes this a very eerie listen, but one that you want to hear and sit with in order to understand her from her point of view. Mitchell has always placed an equal emphasis on words and music, so musically this is up there with many of her classic albums, all of which feature the kind of arrangements and melodies that you will not hear on mainstream radio anytime soon.
As for those lyrics, it is very much somber and melancholy, although the sadness that lurks within have a small glimmer of hope. In “If I Had A Heart”, she sings “There’s just too many people now, too little land/Much too much desire, you feel so feeble now, it’s so out of hand/Big bombs and barbed wire/We’ve set our lovely sky, our lovely sky/on fire, only to reveal later that f I had a heart, I’d cry.” “Strong And Wrong” questions the so-called sanctity of war, and how some of our political leaders enjoy having a good conscious about their actions in the name of:
The dawn of man comes slow
housands of years
ere we are
ur own ego
trong and wrong
The title track displays what has made Mitchell such a joy to listen to. Just as she explained in “Big Yellow Taxi” (which is updated on this album), there’s a lot of things happening in the world right now that people don’t know or care about, but with every turn of the page she reveals each disgrace after disgrace, until the listener wonders if there’s anything left to cherish. Mitchell shines the light on everything she feels has made us inhuman, but within the inhumanity she feels there has to be some sense of sanity left. If not, there’s not much to truly live for. Had the album ended then and there, it would have been devastating, a gateway towards the vicious circle that was displayed on Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Instead, the sanity that she feels is in all of our hearts is awaken in “If”, a call to everyone to feel, think, and live much better lives, and the reason is “Cause you’ve got the fight/You’ve got the insight/You’ve got the fight/You’ve got the insight.” It is very much a continuation of the fabric of music that is her life, or at least her life expressed in song, with hints of Charles Mingus, Cassandra Wilson, Bob Dylan, David Crosby, and everyone else who she has listened to, or who have listened to her. The sorrow in all of these songs are meant to feel that way, and it could very well be a plea from one generation to another, to fight and stand up for what’s right. It’s partly political but very much social, and the movement she speaks of is merely the idea of movement, to act and react. Shine is an album where you have to act and react, or feel through what is revealed. By listening, perhaps one will be able to shine the light on the darkness that seems to overwhelm us all.
Mitchell’s appreciation of jazz has been very evident in her music throughout the years, especially in the mid to late 70’s, and one of the people who had been listening from afar was Herbie Hancock. Both of them have collaborated many times over the years, but it was limited to just that. In honor of her and her work, Hancock responds in kind with a very moving tribute album, an exchange of words and music in the form of River: The Joni Letters.
Hancock’s music has always impressed anyone who has approached it, and for this project he wanted to do something very different. While Hancock has recorded work which utilized vocals from collaborators, he said this is the first time where he had to record music where the emphasis was more on the vocals. If you know Mitchell’s music, you’ll know that at times it can be some of the most complex things you’ll ever hear, so it’s hard to tell if Hancock is joking or if he simply wanted to be humble with his approach. Regardless, Hancock teams up with Wayne Shorter, Dave Holland, Vinnie Colaiuta, and Lionel Loueke to back him up and assemble the soundscapes for his tribute. Out of the ten tracks, four are instruments, so hearing Hancock play in place of Mitchell’s voice is interesting and satisfying at the same time. “Both Sides Now” and “Sweet Bird” are sure to raise a few eyebrows, only because they are that good. The interpretations are unique, but they only add to the strength of songs that still hold up today. Without a voice, you concentrate on how powerful her compositions are and listeners may want to hunt down the originals.
For the vocal tracks, Hancock has brought together friends both old and new to help him out on his mission. One of the biggest surprises is Tina Turner, whose vocal performance of “Edith And The Kingpin” may be some of the best work she has done since her days with Ike. Turner has never shied away from performing pop, rock, and soul, but after hearing this I wonder why she hasn’t done more jazz albums. Her voice is as seductive as it was 45 years ago, even more so, and I hope this is a sign of things to come. For a “new” voice there’s Corinne Bailey Ray’s take on “River”, and if Mitchell was looking for a chance for the person in the song to fly, she does in this rendition. “The Jungle Line” is interpreted as a spoken word piece through Leonoard Cohen, in a way fans have come to know and love. One immediately feels as if they’re in some obscure nightclub with 50 people or less, and the aroma of every crevice is only dampened by that of the cigarette smoke and weaknening alcoholic drinks. Spirits are stirred up through Norah Jones, who takes on “Court And Spark” and comes close to making it her own.
In the middle of all of this, Mitchell herself sits in with Hancock for a new, jazzy rendition of “Tea Leaf Prophecy”, complete with a much looser vocal arrangement that comes off as an extension of an already great song. Mitchell almost sings this as free form poetry, while Hancock and the band cater to the freedom of her style by moving within and around her until everything sounds just right, complimented with an appropriate solo from Shorter, followed by a Hancock solo that is as heartbreaking as the lyrics are.
The musical fabric of both artists continue with these albums, and after all these years the stitches are intertwined, maybe it was inevtiable. The mere mention of Joni Mitchell is usually followed with such words as integrity, strength, and fearlessness. The mere mention of Herbie Hancock is generally followed with innovative, intense, and groundbreaking . Both group of terms could apply to the other. Through the words of Mitchell and through the unspoken language of Hancock, they both have created two of the most important albums in their individual careers, amongst a discography of recordings that hopefully will inspire future generations to be fearless in the search of their own muse.