Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Book Review: 'Herbie Hancock: Possibilities' by Herbie Hancock and Lisa Dickey


If you are a musician, there is a great deal to like about this biography. There is a lot of inside musical baseball: like the best way to learn to improvise, how to avoid getting into musical ruts, the art of moving away from musical structures, when not to play the “butter notes,” and above all, about how to become comfortable night-after-night being out on the high-wire act of “improvising in the moment.”

Then there are all of the lessons the incomparable Miles Davis taught the author, which taken together is more than what Miles told us about himself in his own horrible biography called “Decoy.”

One funny anecdote that will stick with me is when Miles saw a woman fall down a staircase. He then says to Herbie and Wayne: “play that?” Or, turning one of Herbie’s wrong chords into a plus, as if nothing had happened, or how to continually open up new spaces for freer playing. Miles is still a genius even if he had one of the worse autobiographies in history.

Then there was Herbie’s group’s, and even his own private impressions of other musicians. For instance, I did not know that Garnett (“Tut”) Brown, who I played with in the University of Arkansas band (where he was one of our foremost stars), also played with Herbie’s Mwandishi band. Or that most of the band members were Buddhists like him. I understand that “Tut” is now a regular Trombonist in the LA Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra.

The most revealing anecdote however, was the impressions of Wynton Marsalis, after he had opened the window in his Tokyo Hotel room, apparently to commit suicide because he felt he was missing “that thing” that others in the band “had.”

As Herbie and Wayne Shorter came to his rescue and reassured him that he was okay, it did occur to me while I was reading this, that every time I have heard Wynton in person, including once when he was in Geneva, Switzerland playing with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, I too had come to the same conclusion: That Wynton was primarily an outstanding “musical technician,” who did not yet know how to tap into his own inner soul. Oh, he can “fake soul” very well indeed, but the last time I saw him here in DC at Blues Alley, he still did not yet have it firmly under his belt and solidly in his repertory.

I still find him very technically proficient, and don’t get me wrong, I do not knock that at all. And I agree with Herbie on this: The guy has probably done more for Jazz music than any other living American. And for that I too am also grateful to him. I listen to all of his Sirius radio presentations and they are all first-rate gems.

But using his own words, I think I know and have felt exactly about him as he felt about himself in Tokyo: that his solos always seem to “lack that thing” that other Jazz musicians have -- including his brother and tenor sax player, extraordinaire Branford, who as far as my ears can tell, certainly does not have the same problem as Wynton.

So my advice to Wynton would be to listen to his brother: They came from the same family and have the same genes, so the “soul gene” must be rolling around there in his head or body somewhere? Keep looking?

That is the good news about this rich autobigraphy. The bad news is that the non-musical part of this biography is much too sketchy to compete with the recent best of this genre, like Belafonte’s or Andre Agassi’s autobiographies.

Perhaps it is simply the case that Herbie’s life away from music just was not all that interesting. But even so, why leave a complete blank spot when it came to his father or his older brother?

Now I am going to have to go out on the web and try to find out what happened to them? Five stars




Editor's note: This review was written by Dr. Herbert L. Calhoun and has been reposted with permission. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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