062208 Herbie Hancock, Ottawa, ON

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To my mind there is no greater compliment that can be given to a pop star than for a bunch of jazz heavies to step up and give their catalogue the treatment.  It’s no coincidence that my appreciation for Nirvana increased greatly when I heard Charlie Hunter cover Come as You Are; same for Sade when Herbie Hancock covered her song Love is Stronger Than Pride on his New Standards album (which is an entire record of exactly this sort of thing).  Of course there are a zillion jazz versions of Beatles songs and there is a beautiful rendition on the youtubes of Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice by the late, great Lenny Breau.  You should actually stop reading this right now and go listen to that for four minutes.

This video has nothing to do with this ticket story, but it’s awesome and you should watch it.

Welcome back.  Now, I don’t think an artist who receives accolades from virtually every direction the way Joni Mitchell does needs a jazzy tip of the cap to feel good about her career, but all the same I was super-excited to attend the Ottawa Jazz Festival on June 22nd, 2008 for the rare and fortunate opportunity to catch one of only two Canadian dates on Herbie Hancock’s River – The Joni Letters tour.  And not only that, one of my all-time favourite jazz bass players was on the gig as well; none other than the wonderful and highly-respected Dave Holland.  

Of course Joni is no mere pop star. She a songwriter’s songwriter and an absolutely stellar musician (not only did Joni craft for herself an astounding and unique style and musical presence, along the way she developed a right-hand rhythmic technique that is nothing short of brilliant), and back in the ’70’s she branched out from her extremely successful folk/pop career to record a couple of fantastic jazz albums alongside such luminaries as Jaco Pastorius, Wayne Shorter, Larry Carlton and yes, Herbie Hancock among a slew of others.  So I suppose one could argue that this concert was more a case of one jazz artist playing the music of another but one would certainly lose that argument, especially if it were posited within my earshot.  For not only is Joni Mitchell primarily considered a pop (or folk) artist, but the songs Herbie et al played at this show were definitely from Joni’s popular songbook.  Of course there was River – that was kind of a given – but also stuff like Court and Spark, and Both Sides Now.  There were some guest vocalists and Herbie played some of his own stuff too, and I think Holland might have taken the lead on a tune as well (either way I had my eyes on the towering bass player pretty much the whole time I wasn’t in line for beer).

Anyway, the concert was just as good as you would imagine it to have been; stunning and virtuosic, nostalgic and sublime, eye’s closed one minute and swaying to pockets of groove the next.  Every song was a surprise (especially the ones that I recognized), such was the latitude of Hancock’s creative interpretations.  And all of it on a pleasant summer’s evening with good friends collected under the Confederation Park’s jazz tree.

Thank-you Herbie.  Thank-you Joni.  Thank-you Ottawa Jazz Fest.  Heck, while I’m at it: Thanks mom.

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