NEW YORK -- Herbie Hancock admits he would get so wrapped up in the music itself that he never paid any attention to the lyrics when interpreting songs, even on his Grammy-winning album "Gershwin's World." But the jazz pianist's outlook changed when he recorded an album of songs by Joni Mitchell, his old friend who shares his penchant for genre-bending musical adventures.
Hancock spent months working with co-producer Larry Klein, Mitchell's former husband and longtime musical partner, analyzing the lyrics and choosing the songs for his new album, "River: The Joni Letters." He even typed out the texts and discussed them with his fellow musicians before recording each track -- something he had never done before in the studio.
"Knowing that Joni's music really grows out of the lyrics, I was determined . . . to do everything I could to help ensure that the lyrics were the driving force," Hancock, 67, said in a telephone interview from Tokyo, where he was touring.
"I started playing piano when I was 7 . . . and I never looked at the lyrics," said Hancock. "It's very typical of jazz instrumentalists. We're so dazzled by melody, harmony, textures . . . that even when I hear a vocal and it's in English, it might as well be in Polish."
A year ago, Hancock eagerly embraced the suggestion of Dahlia Ambach-Caplin, director of A&R at Verve Records, that he do an album of Mitchell's music, given their long-standing friendship and mutual respect.
Hancock and Mitchell have appeared on each other's records since 1979, when Mitchell invited him and Wayne Shorter to record the album "Mingus," on which she wrote lyrics to tunes composed for her by legendary jazz bassist Charles Mingus shortly before his death from Lou Gehrig's disease.
Hancock and Klein were determined not to make another hodgepodge tribute album. Instead, "River" reflects Hancock's personal look at Mitchell's music from his own jazz perspective. The pianist put together a stellar acoustic jazz quintet with Shorter, bassist Dave Holland, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and guitarist Lionel Loueke who play on nearly all the 10 tracks.
But he decided he didn't want to use any traditional jazz singers, but rather vocalists who could approach jazz from their own perspective, including Norah Jones ("Court and Spark"), Corinne Bailey Rae ("River") and the Brazilian Luciana Souza ("Amelia").
Mitchell's poet mentor, Leonard Cohen, closes the album with a gravelly recitation of "The Jungle Line," her surrealistic look at a jazz club, to the sparse accompaniment of Hancock's lone piano.
Mitchell decided to contribute by singing "Tea Leaf Prophecy," a portrait of her parents' World War II courtship, in tribute to her mother, Myrtle Anderson, who died in March at 95.