Buddhism Wins and Crack Loses in 'Herbie Hancock: Possibilities'

Herbie Hancock's memoir shows us how possibilities in and of themselves can be fleeting, but their ripple effects can go on nearly forever.

Herbie Hancock: Possibilities

Publisher: Viking
Length: 352 pages
Author: Herbie Hancock, Lisa Dickey
Price: $29.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-10

Possibilities sounds like a generic name for a memoir. For legendary jazz chameleon Herbie Hancock's story, however, it's a good fit. His autobiography broadly traces the many musical opportunities that fell into his lap and the ingenuity he used to turn them into career milestones. Hancock treats every one of these Possibilities as a chance to further himself musically, personally, business-wise, or sometimes all of the above.

Hancock has been a practicing Buddhist for almost all of his adult life. He uses this spiritual angle again and again as a gentle reminder that he likes to turn obstacles into opportunities. If there's an album running behind schedule, great! He figures out a way to use it to his advantage. If he can't learn the classical piece "Er Huang" by Chinese composer Qigang Chen thoroughly enough in time for a one-off performance, he uses it as an excuse to chant some more. If a gig falls through, money is lost, a member quits a band, or if he ushers Miles Davis's quintet into the boss's solo to "So What" with a wrong chord, it's all a chance for growth. Hancock sees just about anything life throws at him as an opportunity for growth, even a late '90s crack addiction that he tried to hide from his family.

As he quickly takes you back to his childhood on the south side of Chicago by the third page, two things become clear: Hancock is both an optimist and highly analytical. These are his default modes, and it is through these filters that he tells his story. He admits that he can't help but remember all the positive aspects of his old neighborhood while his late sister recalled things very differently. Her voice is heard in excerpts of essays she wrote for classes, which are included in the book, providing insights that the author admits to not having.

This rosy outlook is a practical one. Hancock saw friends, family and neighbors struggle with the mid-century color barrier. In plain terms, he states that be refused to be a victim. This practice of skirting negativity probably explains the lack of racial tension in Possibilities. It was likely occurring all around him, but Hancock sees it as regressive to acknowledge it. When it comes to his childhood interests, it's fuzzy to tell if the mechanics of music drew him to engineering or if the prospects of technology drew him to music. Hancock walked a line between the two through his teenage years.

When he arrived at Grinnell for his college education, he had to make a choice: music or engineering? In the long run, he didn't make the choice so much as the choice was made for him. He entered into the engineering department to assure his mother that he would be gainfully employed after graduation. Faltering grades and an obsessive dedication to curating a big band performance that no one in the middle of Iowa necessarily asked for but gladly attended convinced Hancock that music was his ticket to life.

Whether in childhood or adulthood, Hancock strove to be an overachiever in music and technology. As a child, he won a competition to perform with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He was supposed to learn Mozart's Piano Concerto No.18 in B-flat Major, K. 456, which he did diligently. Shortly before the performance, he and his teacher were informed that the orchestra's copies of the score were lost and that he had to learn another Mozart piano concerto instead. Hancock suspected it was a likely an attempt to get him to cancel his own performance, a rare moment when he acknowledges some racial profiling. Rather than back down, Hancock buckled down and learned the new piece in time to perform it with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Towards the end of the book, Hancock is looking down the barrel of a similar situation, where he has to learn Gerswhin's "Rhapsody in Blue" for a duet with Lang Lang at a Grammy ceremony. In his musical laboratory, he was never content to settle with what hardware was available on the market. Through the late '70s and early '80s, Hancock and ex-Mahavinshu Orchestra soundman Bryan Bell were a wiz-kid team. If Hancock wanted the perfect sound to come out of a Moog crossed with something else, Bell would oblige. Bell would drill holes into the Moogs, potentially voiding their warranty.

His rarely slowed down in his chasing of sounds, cranking out record after record with an early '80s digital interface. Time and again, I wished I could tell Hancock to slow down already, to enjoy the sounds he has rather than bending existing hardware and software to his every whim. But that's how new frontiers are explored, and Hancock knew it. These days, the marriage between music and modern technology is a given, but over 30 years ago it was tricky business, one that Hancock threw himself into over and over again.

Hancock's musical trajectory is plotted out rather swiftly, likely because that's how it seemed to him at the time. One moment he's done with high school and off to college. By page 30, he's been recruited by Coleman Hawkins. All of this certainly warrants a double-take. His tenure in New York, playing in Donald Byrd's band and eventually being invited to join Miles Davis's second "classic" quintet, reads like the easy life. If Hancock was up against any adversity at this point in time, he doesn't show it. He keeps his head down, plays the piano, and learns all he can form those around him.

When he first came up with the idea for "Watermelon Man", he seems remarkably calm about the thought process that went into naming the tune. He realized that he was walking a racial high wire with an illusion to a man on a wagon selling watermelons, but he reasonably decided that he wanted to make the image/memory of this "Watermelon Man" his own. His weighing of the pros and cons of each situation is remarkably businesslike.

It's during Hancock's time in the Miles Davis quintet that things get pretty interesting pretty quickly. You get the feeling that Hancock could probably fill a 300 page book full of Davis musings alone. He famously cryptic with his advice, telling Hancock "don't play the butter notes". After Hancock takes it upon himself to figure out what the hell that means, we're told that a later rumor translated it to "don't play the bottom notes". In addition to having a guy like Miles Davis as a boss, one who wouldn't even tell you if you "passed" his audition or not, the quintet had plenty of other characters. Drummer Tony Williams wasn't old enough to drink, let alone play live music in a bar. This did not stop Williams from wanting to butt heads with everyone, Davis included. Hancock credits the young drummer's stubbornness to Williams bettering himself musically until the day he died.

Wayne Shorter had a bookish sense of humor that put the band at ease and they all thought of him as a consistently good composer. Through Hancock's time in the Davis quintet he becomes acquainted with the Fender Rhodes electric piano while they were recording Miles In the Sky. As Hancock tells it, he enters the studio, looks around and sees no piano. He asks Miles Davis what he's supposed to play. "Play that" says Davis, pointing to the instrument.

Hancock's departure from the Davis quintet coincides with his marriage to his girlfriend Gigi Meixner and his decision to start a new band with his Fender Rhodes. After some minor lineup changes and a helping hand from fan a fan named Bill Cosby, the new Mwandishi band make their mark with the Fat Albert theme. After constant gigging, Mwandishi's sound begins to grow by leaps and bounds, leaving the realm of commerciality. David Rubison, Hancock's manager at the time, had difficulty selling the band's spaced-out grooves to label executives and gigs are attended by only the most open-minded listeners. Before internal tensions took Mwandishi apart, Hancock struck up a professional relationship with synthesizer advocate Patrick Gleason.

With a new child at home, a move from New York City to Los Angeles and negative cashflow from his Mwandishi tenure, Hancock had to get back on track commercially. He nails big league success twice in his career, and you can probably guess when those instances were. The first one was 1973 record Head Hunters, a successful blend of funk and jazz that yielded the song "Chameleon". Hancock's electronic savvy gives the song its distinct punch. The next time Hancock snagged big-time success is when he teamed up with Bill Laswell and Michael Beinhorn to make Future Shock. The single "Rockit" helped MTV burst wide open with the Godley & Creme's iconic robotic video, which Hancock admits that, upon seeing it, he was unsure if he liked it or not. The lineup of musicians that made Future Shock, including D.J. D.S.T. (now knows as D.X.T.) had to be rigged up for a string of live days. These live dates culminated in an energetic live performance at the 1984 Grammys. And it is with all of this that Hancock's body decides to dispatch out signals that he's ingested too much cocaine.

Hancock concludes some of his chapters with cliffhangers. "And then I found some inspiration from a very surprising source: the Pointer Sisters" (163). "But before that dinner was finished, all our lives would be turned upside down" (page 263). "And before I was even halfway to the ground, I realized that I had made a huge, terrible mistake" (page 288). It's probably not surprising to learn that last one is drug related. Hancock is not shy about his drinking and drug use, which is refreshing since he appears to be so professional in his work ethic. But it was through this work ethic Hancock came to rely on cocaine.

Whenever a film producer would propose a chance for Hancock to score something, Hancock would take it. Projects like these helped Hancock grow as a composer and one in particular even landed him an Oscar (Round Midnight, starring Dexter Gordon). But deadlines loom large in the world of cinema, and many musicians harnessed the power of the powder to help them meet their deadlines. And as Hancock tells it, cocaine was alarmingly available during the '70s and '80s, and this only contributed to the hectic nature of everything. In his New York days, Hancock pragmatically uses his second LSD trip to overcome his fear of bees. On cocaine though, no such revelations came about. He's not especially proud of the cocaine use and he's even less proud of his crack addiction. Coming clean about it for the first time in Possibilities, Hancock gives the Cliff's Notes version of his crack use but spares no detail in how it affected his family, like when he misses his only daughter's 30th birthday. One thing that Hancock does appear to be proud of is his prevailing practice of Buddhism.

Nam Myoho Renge Kyo is the chant that Mwandishi bassist Buster Williams passes on to Hancock in 1972 after Hancock witnesses a Zen-like performance of Williams on his instrument after a night of little-to-no-sleep. From that point forward, Hancock used the Nam Myoho Renge Kyo chant to address every situation that came his way. The death of his sister in a plane crash, the fact that The Imagine Project was running behind schedule, the deadline for a film score approaches, a tumor is discovered in his pinky finger, Hancock faced each situation with a chant. To him, it genuinely goes beyond avoiding life's little inconveniences. Of one group meditation, he says this: "A couple of weeks went by, and I kept practicing [Buddhism]. Then one day something changed. Rather than feeling outside of what people were saying at the meetings, I was feeling their joy, as if I were sharing their experiences with them" (171).

Like many artists coming of age in the '60 and '70s, Hancock's sense of spirituality can't be easily pinned. "From the time I was young I considered myself to be somewhat spiritual", he broadly states on page 154. "Even though my experiences in the churches of South Side Chicago hadn't turned me into a churchgoer, I was always interested in different religions." He was careful to distance himself from the civil rights rage surrounding him, even when all of the members of Mwandishi were adopting Swahili names. A young friend name Mtume was the one who talked the band into it, and of him Hancock says this: "Mtume was an angry man, but unlike him, I didn't come from that place of anger. I wasn't militant and had never been that kind of person. I just realized that because I believed in human rights, and this was the big issue of the day, and it happened to pertain to my own ethnicity, then I needed to be involved in it" (120).

As the 20th century gives way to the 21st, Hancock decides that he's had enough of drugs and alcohol. His album output slows considerably and Hancock emphasizing several times that he still chants every day. He earns a Grammy for his Joni Mitchell covers album River: The Joni Letters, and his musical projects morph into great big tributes involving numerous artists. Many a music critic and Hancock fan will tell you that this is a less-than-inspired phase of his career, but he imparts the reader with more Buddhist maxims than music biz anecdotes towards the end of Possibilities. In a way, it feels like the focus of his life has shifted from a microscopic view of music and technology to a macroscopic view of peace and humanity.

Despite the fact that there is a picture of him playing his keyboards in front of at least two computer monitors in his home studio, it feels as if that adventurous artistic spirit has now moved on to the next person. But that all matters little when you are so at peace with your life that you have no problem spilling your guts in a book while smiling on the front cover. Possibilities in and of themselves can be fleeting, but their ripple effects can go on nearly forever.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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