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A Grammy First For Herbie Hancock

This story was written and researched by's Judy Faber.

Jazz piano pioneer Herbie Hancock has 10 Grammy awards, all won in instrumental categories.

This year, however, it's an album with vocals that's earned him a nod in the Grammy's most important category, album of the year.

"River: The Joni Letters" includes instrumental arrangements of Joni Mitchell's songs as well as tracks with vocal performances by Corrine Bailey Ray, Norah Jones, Tina Turner and Mitchell.

It's the "letters" that were Hancock's biggest inspiration.

"I realized that my challenge would be to make the lyrics be the engine that drives the music," Hancock told The in an interview from his studio in Los Angeles. "For me that's an exceptional challenge because I never pay attention to words. Especially being a jazz instrumentalist - we pay attention to harmonies, textures, to chords and to melodies."

Hancock turned to Mitchell's record producer (and former husband) Larry Klein for advice on what to select from the singer-songwriter's vast catalog of songs.

"He would make suggestions, [based on] a certain kind of harmonic structure that he thought would be compatible with me and then we'd examine the words," Hancock said. "I would ask him questions about the meaning of the words. I would read two words and have to stop because it would be so brilliant and so full of genius, that I was like 'how old was she when she wrote that?' and he'd say '21' and I would say 'what?'"

Of course, Hancock himself was a child prodigy. He started playing piano when he was 7, and at 11 he performed a Mozart piano concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He switched to jazz in high school, was discovered by trumpeter Donald Byrd at 20, and two years later signed to Blue Note records. A year later, he was out with his first album for the label, "Takin' Off," which spawned the hit instrumental track "Watermelon Man."

He took another big step in his career a few years later when he joined Miles Davis' band, playing an important role in the trumpeter's foray into jazz fusion on albums such as "Bitches Brew."

It was Davis who pushed him towards the new sound.

"We showed up at the recording studio, and normally there's an acoustic piano sitting there and the drums and so forth. And I didn't see an acoustic piano," said Hancock. "So I asked Miles, I said, 'what do you want me to play?' and he points over to the Fender Rhodes in the corner of the room and says [imitating Davis' trademark growl], 'play that.' I'm thinking 'what, that toy?'"

Hancock said he had never played electric piano before, but he had adopted the opinion of his fellow musicians: "that's a piece of crap."

"But, I said okay, so they set it up. I turned it on and I played a chord on it. And I said 'oh that sounds nice' that's cool! Then I thought, 'oh yeah, but I can turn it up and be as loud as the drummer,'" Hancock laughed. "I said 'cool!'"

On "River: The Joni Letters," Hancock reunites with his former Miles Davis bandmate, saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Hancock explains that Shorter's work on the album was also inspired by the lyrics.

"I had a copy of the lyrics given to each of the members of the band when we did the tracks," he said. "We'd go into the engineer's booth and we'd talk about the lyrics. Also who the characters are that she wrote about. The interesting thing was Wayne Shorter who said, 'well what about the characters that she didn't write about that would be in that scene anyway? I wanna play those.'"

The song "Edith and the Kingpin" takes place in a club in a small town, not unlike the ones Shorter and Hancock played when they were starting out.

Listen: Tina Turner sings "Edith And The Kingpin" from Herbie Hancock's "River: The Joni Letters"
"Wayne said, 'I wanna be one of the guys in the club at the bar that are milling about talking about the prostitutes,'" Hancock continued. "Which she didn't have in the lyric, but I thought that was brilliant that he came up with the idea of visually what would be happening. We know club scenes so we know what that's like."
The song is beautifully sung by a gentler, jazzier Tina Turner. According to Hancock, Turner was shy about recording jazz for the first time and didn't want him present at the session.

"I mean, she's really one of the originators of rock and roll," he said. "Especially as far as vocals are concerned. She didn't want to have to do whatever work she had to do to find what she needed to find - and have me there through that process. So Larry Klein went over there with the engineer and they recorded her."

The result was so good, that Hancock can't wait to do more.

"I would love to make a jazz album with her," he said. "She's amazing. So many people have mentioned that she's reinvented herself with this rendering of the vocal."

Hancock has enjoyed mainstream success with the 1973 instrumental hit "Chameleon," the Grammy-winning hip-hop track "Rockit" in 1983, and Us3's sampling of his song "Cantaloupe Island" for their hit "Cantaloop." His 2005 album, "Possibilities," featured appearances by a slew of pop stars including Christina Aguilera and John Mayer. He's also written music for television and film, earning a best original soundtrack Oscar for "'Round Midnight."

This year's album of the year nomination is special, though, because jazz albums have only gotten a nod a handful of times through the awards' half-century history - and jazz purists don't even count some of those nominations as being truly of the genre.

The last jazz album to be nominated for album of the year was Diana Krall's "When I Look in Your Eyes." at the 42nd Annual Grammy Awards. It's been since 1964 that a jazz album won album of the year, for the bossa nova classic "Getz/Gilberto" featuring Stan Getz, João Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim.

"River: The Joni Letters" is also nominated for best contemporary jazz album of the year and Hancock is nominated for best jazz instrumental solo for the track "Both Sides Now."

With his amazing career, the 67-year-old could have rested on his laurels many times over, but that's the farthest thing from his mind.

Hancock will be performing at the Grammy Awards on Feb. 10, 2008 on CBS. He'll be performing George Gershwin's "Rhapsody In Blue" with classical pianist and fellow nominee Lang Lang. Prefacing that appearance, Hancock will play at the MusiCares Person of the Year Gala honoring Aretha Franklin on February 8th at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

In March, Hancock will set off on a concert tour through May, and then will go on two additional tours through November. He'll be performing music from the album, with singer-songwriter Sonya Kitchell on vocals. Kitchell is featured on a bonus track for the album available on
By Judy Faber
By Judy Faber