There was a time when you could say that there was a direction in jazz, and the people
who didn’t follow that direction usually stood alone, you know. . . . Not so much
today. I think there are many directions happening in jazz, and you can’t pin it down
to one.—Herbie Hancock
I remember the New York Times jazz critic saying about 12 years ago, “Thank god, this
pestilence known as fusion is dead.” What? Get a life!—John McLaughlin
With the release of River: The Joni Letters (Verve 2007) Herbie Hancock navi-
gated down one of jazz’s “many directions,” placing Duke Ellington and
Wayne Shorter compositions within a program otherwise dedicated to
Joni Mitchell. Mitchell provided lead vocals on “Tea Leaf Prophecy,” and
her voice, its aged huskiness offset by a continuing fragility and wistful-
ness, was matched by the sensitive accompaniment of Hancock and his gui-
tarist, Lionel Loueke, and by Shorter’s lithe soprano saxophone obbligati.
Mitchell’s youthful vision of domesticity as compromise and containment
was replaced with a knowing “this is your happy home.” And though her
lyrics admonish “don’t have kids when you get grown,” she also spelled
out the domestic trivialities that bind people to place and others, while ac-
knowledging a continued ambivalence regarding those connections—“she
says I’m leavin’ here but she don’t go.”1 Norah Jones, Tina Turner, and Lu-
ciana Souza, among others, sang various Mitchell compositions on River, re-
affirming Mitchell’s poetic musicality while exposing her musical oeuvre’s
But it is Hancock’s instrumental version of “Both Sides, Now” that best
marks the broken middle that fusion musicians sound out. Mitchell’s early
hit is transformed by his solo piano introduction into a profoundly aus-
tere statement of ambivalence, suggesting there are an infinite number of
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