When I was not yet a teenager and my parents didn’t know enough about such things to discourage me, they allowed me to pick up a tape (pirated, like most music in India at the time) titled “GRAMY 1985 TOP OF THE POPS”, containing songs by “Lineol Richie”, “Bruce Springstee” and I forget who else. Between then and now, my interaction with Grammy-winning music has been minimal.
So it was something of a surprise to find that a CD I purchased last year has just been awarded “Album of the year” at the Grammys. The only other time a CD that I owned was so honoured, it was Bob Dylan’s “Time out of mind” in 1998. This time it was Herbie Hancock’s tribute to Joni Mitchell, “River: The Joni Letters“.
On this occasion, as with Dylan, one can’t help thinking that the award was really meant to compensate for decades of ignoring one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. Dylan’s first Grammy, in any category, was not for any of the masterpieces on “Blonde on Blonde” or “Blood on the Tracks” or “Highway 61 revisited”, but for the shabby evangelical song “Gotta serve somebody” in 1979. Joni fared a bit better, with a smattering of Grammies through the years, but much of her best work missed out. (Her latest Grammy, coincidentally, was this year, for — of all things — the “best pop instrumental”.)
Be that as it may, Herbie Hancock’s tribute to her is superb, and grows on repeated listening. Whether it deserved a Grammy may be debatable — I don’t see how he can be compared with Kanye West or Amy Winehouse — but it’s worth a listen and the Grammy will cause more people to listen to it.
The musicians include Hancock himself, Wayne Shorter and Dave Holland; the guest singers include Joni herself, fellow Canadian poet-singer Leonard Cohen, Norah Jones, Corinne Bailey Rae, Tina Turner, Luciana Souza. There are four instrumentals — Joni’s “Both Sides Now” and “Sweet Bird”, Duke Ellington’s “Solitude” and Shorter’s “Nefertiti” (the latter two are the only non-Joni pieces on the album). The album begins with the much-Grammy-decorated Norah Jones (Court and Spark) and Tina Turner (Edith and the Kingpin), and officially ends with Cohen, who — unlike Dylan and Joni — has never won a Grammy. The Amazon edition of the CD, which I have, has two bonus tracks: an instrumental “A case of you” and Sonya Kitchell’s performance of “All I want”.
All of it is very, very good. The vocalists for the most part follow Joni’s original recordings rather faithfully, while the jazz accompaniment is perfect for Joni’s tunes (as we already know from her own recordings). Corinne Bailey Rae’s “River” is outstanding. Tina Turner’s “Edith” is not terribly jazzy, but very enjoyable. The Burundi drums of Joni’s “The Jungle Line” are substituted here by Leonard Cohen’s low spoken rumble of words (he seems to have given up singing while recording 2004’s “Dear Heather”), while Herbie solos below him. And the Hancock/Shorter take on “Both Sides Now” is one of the best jazz recordings I’ve ever heard — every line they play hints at and evokes the song, without ever quite stating the theme outright. (The bonus “A case of you” is more a straight cover of Joni, with Herbie doing both the melody and a fair imitation of Joni’s original dulcimer accompaniment).
Grammy or not, go get it.
In other Grammy news: Obama beats Clinton (Bill, that is). And a mathematician wins.