Monday, February 11, 2008

I picked a winner

When I was not yet a teenager and my parents didn't know enough about such things to discourage me, they allowed me to pick up a tape (pirated, like most music in India at the time) titled "GRAMY 1985 TOP OF THE POPS", containing songs by "Lineol Richie", "Bruce Springstee" and I forget who else. Between then and now, my interaction with Grammy-winning music has been minimal.

So it was something of a surprise to find that a CD I purchased last year has just been awarded "Album of the year" at the Grammys. The only other time a CD that I owned was so honoured, it was Bob Dylan's "Time out of mind" in 1998. This time it was Herbie Hancock's tribute to Joni Mitchell, "River: The Joni Letters".

On this occasion, as with Dylan, one can't help thinking that the award was really meant to compensate for decades of ignoring one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. Dylan's first Grammy, in any category, was not for any of the masterpieces on "Blonde on Blonde" or "Blood on the Tracks" or "Highway 61 revisited", but for the shabby evangelical song "Gotta serve somebody" in 1979. Joni fared a bit better, with a smattering of Grammies through the years, but much of her best work missed out. (Her latest Grammy, coincidentally, was this year, for -- of all things -- the "best pop instrumental".)

Be that as it may, Herbie Hancock's tribute to her is superb, and grows on repeated listening. Whether it deserved a Grammy may be debatable -- I don't see how he can be compared with Kanye West or Amy Winehouse -- but it's worth a listen and the Grammy will cause more people to listen to it.

The musicians include Hancock himself, Wayne Shorter and Dave Holland; the guest singers include Joni herself, fellow Canadian poet-singer Leonard Cohen, Norah Jones, Corinne Bailey Rae, Tina Turner, Luciana Souza. There are four instrumentals -- Joni's "Both Sides Now" and "Sweet Bird", Duke Ellington's "Solitude" and Shorter's "Nefertiti" (the latter two are the only non-Joni pieces on the album). The album begins with the much-Grammy-decorated Norah Jones (Court and Spark) and Tina Turner (Edith and the Kingpin), and officially ends with Cohen, who -- unlike Dylan and Joni -- has never won a Grammy. The Amazon edition of the CD, which I have, has two bonus tracks: an instrumental "A case of you" and Sonya Kitchell's performance of "All I want".

All of it is very, very good. The vocalists for the most part follow Joni's original recordings rather faithfully, while the jazz accompaniment is perfect for Joni's tunes (as we already know from her own recordings). Corinne Bailey Rae's "River" is outstanding. Tina Turner's "Edith" is not terribly jazzy, but very enjoyable. The Burundi drums of Joni's "The Jungle Line" are substituted here by Leonard Cohen's low spoken rumble of words (he seems to have given up singing while recording 2004's "Dear Heather"), while Herbie solos below him. And the Hancock/Shorter take on "Both Sides Now" is one of the best jazz recordings I've ever heard -- every line they play hints at and evokes the song, without ever quite stating the theme outright. (The bonus "A case of you" is more a straight cover of Joni, with Herbie doing both the melody and a fair imitation of Joni's original dulcimer accompaniment).

Grammy or not, go get it.

In other Grammy news: Obama beats Clinton (Bill, that is). And a mathematician wins.


Tabula Rasa said...

totally agree. the only time you should NEVER play this is while you're driving.

km said...

Interesting. I had completely ignored this album.

Tabula Rasa said...

blame early morning eyes, but i clicked through here to see if there were any updates and read the title of this post as "i pickled a wiener".

Rahul Siddharthan said...

In related news, Colbert pickles a wiener called Limbaugh here (the relevance to this post comes towards the end).

Tabula Rasa said...


Anonymous said...

Hi Rahul,

this question is not related to the blog post but i read an essay of yours titled Music Math and Bach. I am very interested in learning the basic theory of carnatic and western music. the only thing i know is a little bit of "practical" carnatic music. the essay was very nice. could you please tell me some other sources for learning the theory


Music Lover.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Music lover -- depending on where you are you should be able to find a good teacher of either Indian or Western music, but it's true that many teachers go light on "theory". There are lots of good books on the theory of Western music (eg, Piston's book on harmony). I'm not that familiar with books on Indian music theory; I don't think there has been a lot of work on analysing the frequencies of different srutis and determining their physical basis. For the "physics of sound and music" there are, again, several books; Helmholtz and Jeans wrote classics. You can also try Fletcher and Rossing's "The physics of musical instruments". I read some of it years ago and seem to remember it was good.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Rahul, for the kind recommendations

Music Lover.