In the musical development of jazz legend Herbie Hancock two things are persistently evident as you read his memoir Possibilities (Viking, 2014) with Lisa Dickey?Miles Davis and Buddhism.?? Hardly an engrossing chapter goes by without some reference to the great musician or the power and practice of Nichiren Buddhism.??
?Miles taught me many great lessons in music,? Hancock reminds readers, ?but everything I learned from him, I learned for the sake of playing well.?? Hancock was also an open receptor, a veritable sponge for Davis?s ceaseless innovation, and in several respects exceeded his mentor, particularly his venture into electronic music, rap, and classical that was seminal during his child prodigy days.
Beyond the music?and his explanation of the creative process throughout this rather short book is instructive without being complex?is his willingness to share the obstacle course of his life, the humps and bumps that only the chanting of Nam Myoho Renge Kyo provided answers and relief.? The chanting, he said, ?provides a tangible affirmation of an intangible inner transformation?called Actual Proof?to themselves and to others in their lives unleashed by their Buddhist practice.?
Given the many examples where ?Actual Proof? occurred, it?s hard to dispute how influential it was?and continues to be?for Hancock, and not a crisis is encountered that isn?t remedied by chanting.? When he hits a creative wall and an assignment has not been completed, he chants. When there is a personal difficulty that must be overcome, he chants.? When he feels rudderless and uncertain about which way to go with his career, he chants.
Sounds like a pretty enchanting book (how could I possibly resist that pun), and that it is and the records speak for themselves, especially the ones that have brought him nearly every conceivable music award on the planet.? You expect a memoir to divulge information beyond the grasp of TMZ and social media, and Hancock delivers this abundantly, so much so that he has little else to hide.
Nothing is more astonishing than the recounting of his struggle with alcohol and cocaine, and the even more menacing crack cocaine.? This revelation has been on hold for many years, though it was whispered among a few of his close associates and those who indulged with him.? But to the larger public, he had every appearance of being Mr. Goody Two Shoes, an impression he has no reservation dispelling on these pages.
Equally revealing is his relationship with his sister Jean, who died in a plane crash in the summer of 1985.? A section of her diary is published here and not only was she a very fine writer; she seems to foreshadow such a tragic end which is ironic since she spent so much time as an airline attendant.?? Hancock?s regret about how he responded to her quest as an artist is like a long lament and his remorse is palpable.
The book has a little bit for every type of inquiring mind.? Those who relish gossip and want to know how Hancock concealed his habits and eventually freed himself of drugs will not be disappointed; if you would like to know the inner workings of one of the greatest jazz ensembles in history, some of that is also available;? but it?s Hancock?s relentless curiosity that is most engaging as he continues to seek musical horizons that for the most are but another plateau to aesthetic fulfillment.
Davis may be the major mentor in his life, but Hancock avails himself to a number of acolytes and collaborators, all of whom assist him to conquer the next stage of his artistic evolution.? Again, the tone here is confessional as he readily admits to an inadequacy and the need for help and insight.? His brilliance is such that all he ever needs is just a hint toward solving the musical problem and then he owns it.
While reading the book it might be helpful to plug into the various albums or CDs to hear what he explains so well, from the early days with Donald Byrd to his own ensembles?Mwandishi and Head Hunters?down to the duets with Wayne Shorter and classical pianist Lang Lang.
Like the construction of his piano solos, Hancock is a compelling storyteller and perhaps with Dickey?s help they find ways to keep the reader just a chapter or two from a conclusion; it?s intriguing to witness how they circle back to an episode in an earlier chapter.
That circularity is part of the book?s appeal, and it enhances those moments when he is grappling with a piece of music, a fragment that ultimately becomes a much longer composition as he did so marvelously with ?Maiden Voyage? and ?Dolphin Dance.??
You gain some additional insight on Hancock the man as he questions himself about issues in African American culture.? How will Black Americans feel about his calling a song ?Watermelon Man? is something he turns over and over before finding a rationalization to keep the title.? Of course, he?s aided and abetted by a little chanting.
The ?Actual Proof? of this book is in the reading.? Listen to his duet with Chick Corea on YouTube and you gather some notion of how well he works in tandem with another skillful artist; check out his album with Joni Mitchell to hear how he can cross over with sincerity and authority; and then return to those days with Davis when he played what he thought was a wrong note, which for Davis was just another note.
There are no wrong notes in Possibilities and if there are Hancock will be the first to tell you.