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Three for the road

Herbie Hancock, Renee Rosnes, and Luciana Souza
By JON GARELICK  |  August 21, 2007

MORE JONI: Herbie digs some deep jazz out of the Mitchell songbook.

Jazz Brunch Top 5
From WFNX’s Jazz Brunch
1_Manuel Valera, Vientos [Anzic]
2_Bruce Hornsby, Camp Meeting [Sony Legacy]
3_US3, Say What !? [US3]
4_Roswell Rudd/Yomo Toro, El Espíritu Jíbaro [Sunnyside]
5_Papa Grows Funk, Mr. Patterson’s Hat [Funky Krewe]
Maybe it’s Larry Klein’s world and the rest of us just live in it. The former husband of Joni Mitchell has a slew of impressive production and bass-playing credits, from Mitchell and Freddie Hubbard to Shawn Colvin and Madeleine Peyroux. Now he’s produced the major-label debut by his current wife, Luciana Souza (more on that later), as well as the forthcoming Mitchell tribute, River: The Joni Letters (Verve, due in stores September 25), by jazz piano monster Herbie Hancock.

Klein was “a great source of information about the songs and their meanings,” says Hancock, who plays the Berklee Performance Center August 25, “the environment that is described in the songs and in some cases when and why Joni wrote a particular song, what was happening in her life that provoked her to write that song.” Speaking to me on the phone from LA, Hancock says that he and Klein spent “a few weeks” just talking about the songs and their meaning, choosing the material, and coming up with a list of vocalists.

It’s an impressive list, with expected guests and some good left-field surprises: Souza (“Amelia”), Norah Jones (“Court and Spark”), and Corinne Bailey Rae (“River”) — of course. But also Tina Turner (“Edith and the Kingpin”!) and the great lady Herself (“Tea Leaf Prophecy”). Perhaps best of all is Leonard Cohen intoning a Beat-poet spoken-word rendition of “The Jungle Line.” The biggest surprise: on first listen, this is not a commercial sop like Herbie’s last guest-star-studded crossover outing, 2005’s Possibilities, which featured, among others, Annie Lennox, Christina Aguilera, Paul Simon, and Sting, in a hodgepodge of old and new pop songs. TheJoni Letters is a moody, cohesive whole, with long stretches of subdued improvisation between verses from Hancock and Wayne Shorter. A few pieces are instrumental only, and one of them is Shorter’s classic “Nefertiti.” (Joni as the mysterious, impetuous queen of the Nile?)

Hancock says to expect a career-spanning set at Berklee — ’60s Blue Note material, Head Hunters funk, and more — from his quartet with exciting young Beninese guitarist and vocalist Lionel Loueke, electric-bassist Nathan East, and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta. He’ll play both electric and acoustic keyboards. But don’t expect anything from River: “We won’t have time to rehearse. And one of the things we discovered for the material that’s on the record is that it’s really more appropriate with a feminine singer than a male singer.”

The SF Jazz Collective’s Live 2007 is worth seeking out —for the all-star cast and the compositions by this year’s dedicatee composer, Thelonious Monk, yes, but also for a second disc of original pieces by the band members that includes Dave Douglas’s “San Francisco Suite” and Renee Rosnes’s “Lion’s Gate.” The latter is a classic post-bop steeplechase of a tune with rhythmic and harmonic twists and turns that inspires some of the best playing on record by Joshua Redman (some flat-out burning swing in contrast with his recent stop-start rhythmic gamesmanship) and by the pianist/composer herself.

Rosnes, who plays the Tanglewood Jazz Festival on September 1, has long been respected for her versatility and adventurousness. A long-time member of veteran bebopper James Moody’s band, she released a string of CDs as a leader on Blue Note beginning in 1988. They showed a post-bop stylist continually extending her range — something you can hear on the internationally flavored Life on Earth, which makes use of everything from Indian tablas to a Balinese monkey chant. But for a quick fix on her playing, go to “Lion’s Gate,” where Redman gradually accelerates and Rosnes comes in at a fast tempo and ratchets it up further, galloping through the changes, marking the built-in rhythmic turn-arounds with fleet riffing and percussive pounding, unfurling silky runs into the upper register.

Rosnes is engaged to marry pianist Bill Charlap just days before her Tanglewood appearance. If she is a latter-day progressive hard-bopper and composer/arranger, Charlap is these days seen as the keeper of the American Songbook flame.

“Well, we are two different piano players,” she says with a chuckle when I reach her by phone at the home she shares with Charlap in West Orange, New Jersey. “I hesitate to compare our styles, because I don’t even like putting into words what style I play. It depends on the context. If I’m accompanying James Moody, I’m not saying my style changes, but it brings up a different skill set from a gig with the SF Jazz Collective or even my own group.”

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  Topics: Music Features , Renee Rosnes , Joni Mitchell , Herbie Hancock ,  More more >
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