Sunday, August 11, 2013

Unusual Collaborations: Herbie Hancock and Tina Turner and then some

Herbie Hancock and Tina Turner: Edith and the Kingpin

Herbie Hancock and Melody Gardot: Edith and the Kingpin

Herbie Hancock and Elvis Costello: Edith and the Kingpin
I don‘t know why it took me so long to settle on something to post for this theme. I landed on one of my favorite songs in the world, so it shouldn‘t have been so hard. Long time readers of Star Maker Machine are aware of my love of the music of Joni Mitchell. It‘s hard to consider anything on her own albums an unusual collaboration, because Mitchell was always a restless artist, always changing her sound, always searching, and that meant that the make-ups of her bands were always changing as well. But tributes to her have certainly resulted in some odd pairings. In 2007, Herbie Hancock released his tribute, River: The Joni Letters. This one surely had Mitchell‘s blessing, considering that she sings The Tea Leaf Prophecy on it. But elsewhere, Hancock worked with some surprising partners indeed. Tina Turner strikes me as one of the most unusual, but the result sounds like they have worked together for years.
To back up for just a moment, Herbie Hancock is one of the biggest names in jazz today. His career began in the 1960s, with fairly straight ahead accoustic jazz albums, although very fine ones. He soon caught the attention of Miles Davis, and was with Davis for the birth of fusion jazz on the Bitches Brew album. Hancock then went on to make some of the best music fusion jazz had to offer with his Headhunters band. Later, Hancock collaborated with Bill Laswell on the hit Rockit. So it’s safe to say that Hancock is also a musical explorer, which may be what drew him to Joni Mitchell’s music in the first place.
Meanwhile, I can’t say that I ever followed Tina Turner’s career at all closely, but this is the woman who went from the R&B powerhouse performance of Proud Mary to the much mellower Private Dancer, (the result, by the way, of another interesting collaboration, with producer Mark Knopfler). Nothing there suggests that Turner would be a good jazz singer, but she nails Edith and the Kingpin.
I needed a video for this post, and unfortunately, that meant using the one above, where you stare at the album cover while the song plays. I did find a fan-made slide show, but I thought the choice of images showed a complete cluelessness about the meaning of the song. But looking for the video led me to the two live versions I have also included. Hancock was able to get the singers he wanted for the River album, but they were not necessarily available when he went out on tour in support of the album. That is what must have led to the version with Melody Gardot. Gardot is a young jazz singer who has already made quite a splash, three albums into her career. She is influenced to some extent by country, folk, and blues. Her performance with Hancock here uses the same arrangement as the album version, but the results are quite different. Where Turner is rueful and knowing in her performance, the younger Gardot is sassy and maybe a bit defiant. Gardot also is a bit freer with her timing, and that loosens up the band somewhat as well. The version with Elvis Costello (!), comes from a show called Spectacle that Costello hosted on the Sundance Channel. Costello had recorded his own version of Edith and the Kingpin for a multi-artist compilation called A Tribute to Joni Mitchell earlier in 2007. This version slowed the song down, and featured a lush arrangement that featured Costello in his crooner mode. But the version here is a stripped down arrangement that restores the songs original tempo, and leaves Costello less room to hide as a singer. I am afraid that Costello shows here why he is not a jazz singer. His performance is somewhat stiff, and he has trouble when he tries to bend some of the notes. But this version does have heart, and it shows that Costello gets the song.

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