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Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Hancock's World

I’ve just finished Herbie Hancock’s autobiography ‘Possibilities’, (co-written with Lisa Dickey). It’s an interesting book, as you would expect with someone of Hancock’s pedigree and history, and reading it reminds you just how much music he has been involved with, some of it groundbreaking, and all of it graced by his amazing pianism and creativity.  Hancock is one of those guys who has been around, at the top of the jazz tree, for so long you can almost take him for granted. But reading this book sent me back to some of the music he’s done over the years, and it was an instructive lesson in just how great a jazz musician he is.

In his early days with Miles and others he demonstrated all the attributes that made him such a major figure so quickly. He somehow combined the harmonic sophistication of Bill Evans with a swinging right hand that rivaled Wynton Kelly’s, especially at medium tempos. He was also a virtuoso, on a par with anybody when it came to playing fast tempos effortlessly, and he could imbue anything with a bluesy sensibility . Very much the complete package, these attributes and his high profile gig with Miles ensured that he, (along with McCoy Tyner, the pianist in the other gold standard band of the 60s), became one of the most influential pianists in jazz. In the 70s he went on to form Headhunters, create one of the biggest selling jazz album of all time, and pushed into the electronic world with enthusiasm and imagination. He’s still out there, after a career of over fifty years, still playing great and still boundlessly enthusiastic about music and excited by whatever his latest project is.

As to the book itself, it’s very interesting in a lot of ways and a bit puzzling in others

It’s interesting to read about his childhood and time in college, the fact that he went there originally to study engineering, and ended up changing his Major to music. His background in engineering did have a lasting impact on him however, in that it drove his fascination with music technology, which is something he’s still obsessed about to this day, and there is much description in the book of his various encounters with new technology, and how he would push the inventors of these technologies to stretch the capabilities of what they could do.

He describes his racist experience with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as a young man, and his discovery by Donald Byrd and subsequent move to New York in the early 60s at age twenty. His stories about Miles and how that band began are fascinating and there is much here for anyone interested in the gestation of this great ensemble, its psychology, development and ultimate dissolution. He then goes on to describe the innovative ‘Mwandishi’ band, and then Headhunters and Hancock’s emergence from the limited exposure of the jazz world into the bright lights of the pop world. I found the whole Headhunters and Mwandishi story to be fascinating and also the technological advances that lead to such hits as ‘Rockit’ etc. Herbie always had a feeling for a good groove that would appeal to many people, something proved by ‘Watermelon Man’, which was a huge hit from his first album while he was still an acoustic jazz musician.

(Headhunters live in Germany in 1974)

This is a very honest book in lots of ways and Hancock does not shy away from describing the lows of his life, (such as his addiction to crack cocaine in the 90s), and the flaws in his character as he sees them. He also is scrupulous about giving credit to people that helped him with various things, such as his story about how Joe Zawinul gave him the key advice on how to write for three horns that lead to the masterpiece album ‘Speak Like a Child’. In general he is self-deprecating, and someone who didn’t know his music but had just read this book, might be forgiven for not suspecting just what a great musician he is. In general he comes over as being a nice guy, affable, and good with people in an everyday setting.

So these are the aspects of the book that I found very interesting, but there are also some aspects of this book that I find strange.

The first one is that he gives almost no sense of what it must have been like to be a young pianist, on the scene, in New York in the 1960s. This was in many ways a golden era for jazz and in the early 60s you could see everyone from Louis Armstrong to Cecil Taylor in New York – the entire past, present and future of the music all in one place at the same time. Yet Hancock makes no real mention of the scene, of what that was like for a young pianist. There is no mention of Monk, of Rollins, or even of Coltrane. Trane was the other Big Beast in the world of jazz at that time and Hancock must have seen him play, and Trane was almost certainly at some of the Miles gigs that Hancock played at, yet there is no mention of him at all apart from Hancock stating that he played in some clubs with Miles that Trane and other famous musicians had played at. There is no mention of Rollins, whom Hancock recorded with at that time, or of Ornette, or even of the great albums of Wayne Shorter that Hancock played on at that time.

(With Miles Davis in 1967)

There is no colour in the 60s NY scene as told by Hancock, in the way that there is colour in the NY of the 40s and 50s as told in the Monk biography. Hancock concentrates on the Miles band and his own recordings, and then we’re into the 70s. I felt a bit short-changed – surely the scene there must have had an influence on him at that age, yet very little is mentioned. A pity.

The other strange thing about this book is Herbie’s obvious love of the showbiz life. He’s still star-struck and delighted to be included in big awards ceremonies and being admitted to VIP areas, and surrounded by beautiful women. One would imagine that after all these years he’d be used to being at the top table and would have at least some feeling of deserving to be there. But no, he’s still besotted by the glamour of high-end celebrity and there are moments in the book when his wide-eyed delight at being at this event, or being spoken to by that celebrity really feels strange when you consider how great he is in his own right, and how long he’s been mixing with these kinds of people.

An example of this comes late in the book, when Herbie is describing his surprise at winning his umpteenth Grammy, for ‘The Joni Letters’, for which his competitors were the Foo Fighters, Amy Winehouse, Vince Gill and Kanye West. Of this Herbie says ‘These artists made for some rarified company, so I was happy just to have been nominated’. So, the musician who made some of the greatest music of the 20th century with Miles Davis, broke the mold with jazz funk and music video, had scored movies for Antonioni and Tavernier, and was one of the world’s most influential jazz pianists, felt lucky to have been included in a list that included a mediocrity like Kanye West!? It’s baffling that he should a) be still so Star-struck after so many years at the top, and b) have such a low opinion of himself and his achievements that he should feel lucky to be included in such a list……….

This book is not anything like as good as the aforementioned Monk biography, or of Wayne Shorter’s biography ‘Footprints’, but it is an interesting read nevertheless. And as I mentioned at the beginning, it does send you back to the music, and when you see playing like in the clip below it makes you glad that Herbie is still with us.


  1. Ronan, well put! Herbie’s book reminds me of the book that Max Gordon (I loved Max, by the way) wrote about the Village Vanguard—“Live at the Village Vanguard”. Some great anecdotes, but not a lot of depth. I finished reading it and thought, “Okay, where is the real history of the Vanguard, the real shit that Max went through to keep this thing going all these years?” Herbie Hancock is one of my absolute heroes, make no mistake about that. And I was excited to read some of the parts of this book, especially things he learned from playing with Miles. But I was also dismayed at the number of times he talks about how much money he would make in a certain project. And that the guy who wrote Dolphin Dance and Speak Like a Child was thrilled to be able to stand in front of his band “like a rock star” when he had his portable keyboard. I don’t mean to judge Herbie. But it was a letdown to read some of those remarks (honestly presented, to his credit) from a guy who can still knock me out when he plays the piano. I certainly don’t begrudge him the opportunity to make a lot of money, and would hate to think that “Rockit” (something I can’t stand!) didn’t at least earn him some serious coin. But when I finished the book I came away saying, “Okay, where’s the real, deep story?”

    I must admit that one sense I got from reading Herbie’s book is that he took on more and more challenges—not pigeon-holing himself into any one zone. This took guts on his part, and I admire him for that. This meant that he risked losing people (like me) who really dug his work with Miles, and his own Blue Note albums, and the Mwandishi band, and, well, whatever else I particularly dug in his oeuvre. I really admire him for that. I also admire the fact that he talks about some of his darker aspects: his relationship with his sister, his emotional reservedness, and his substance abuse. These things do help give a more rounded portrait of the man.

    Ronan, I think it’s telling that the two books you cite in your article are biographies, not autobiographies (and Herbie’s book is obviously an “as told to” kind of affair). Some day I would hope that a really good writer would take on the subject of Herbie Hancock. I’d like to see a book like Dizzy’s “To Be Or Not To Bop”, where Diz talks about something, then the writer got other input from other people involved in the same incident. Or at least a real biography that goes deeper into Herbie’s life and career, and musical process. Maybe for me that was the real shortcoming. There was a time, long ago, when I wanted to be Herbie Hancock. Pianist; composer; bandleader. When I saw his book I thought I’d finally get some insight into his magic. What I got instead was a portrait of a guy who was talented, imaginative, not afraid of what others think or say and who was happy making money and being in the green room with pop stars. I’m still waiting for the real bio to come out. Or maybe, to quote Peggy Lee, “That’s all there is.”

    Coda: Having said all this, when I’m on a long flight to somewhere I eat the meal, have a couple of drinks, do whatever work I have to do, get my iPod, play “Actual Proof” from Thrust, and am immediately, forever humbled. Motherfuckin’ Herbie Hancock……

  2. Thanks Jim - I agree 100% with everything you say. It was a shame he didn't give more detail on his musical life in 60s NY, instead of spending so much time outlining the minutae of his more commercial work. But also, as you say, one just has to listen to him play to be reminded of his greatness - my current fix, post-biography, is the Plugged Nickel box set, which I have in my car right now and it's just so great. A real pinnacle of improvisation in my opinion, and of course Herbie is sui generis when he plays in this context…..