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Book Review

‘Possibilities’ by Herbie Hancock with Lisa Dickey

Herbie Hancock (above) credits many for his success, especially Miles Davis.
Herbie Hancock (above) credits many for his success, especially Miles Davis.Jon Chase/Harvard Staff/Harvard Staff Photographer

Herbie Hancock was on honeymoon in Rio when he lost his job with Miles Davis. It was 1968, and Hancock, then 28, had logged five years on piano in Davis’s quintet, one of the great units in jazz history. But a stomach bug and rigid doctor who forbade travel meant Hancock missed some gigs. When he reached Davis, the trumpeter directed him to his manager, who delivered the news. Davis had hired Chick Corea and moved on.

Miles knew, of course. It was time for Hancock to spread his wings. Hancock’s memoir, “Possibilities,’’ spans the jazz legend’s life from his birth in 1940 to the present. Throughout he credits many people for his charmed journey, starting with his striver parents on Chicago’s South Side, who supported his high-end music education, and trumpeter Donald Byrd, who plucked a 20-year-old Hancock from Chicago, took him to New York, and steeped him in advice about the business.

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But Davis gets extra praise. Jazz, he showed Hancock, is “about trusting yourself to respond on the fly. If you can allow yourself to do that, you never stop exploring, you never stop learning, in music or in life.” The only higher credit goes to Nichiren Buddhism, which Hancock adopted in 1972 and continues to practice, chanting daily.

Most jazz cats of Hancock’s vintage led interesting, if at times self-destructive, lives. But Hancock has had a long, mostly healthy run — although he partied, he avoided the bad stuff, until a scary entanglement with crack in the late 1990s that he reveals for the first time here.

He also shed creative skin more than most, going from jazz to “far-out space music” with his early-1970s band Mwandishi, to funk, to projects like his 2008 Grammy-winning compilation of Joni Mitchell covers. He guested most recently on beat experimentalist Flying Lotus’s new record.

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Indeed, many people under, say, 50 probably discovered Hancock via “Rockit,” his highly hummable hip-hop foray of 1983, with the quirky robotic video that became a staple of early MTV. By then Hancock’s status in the jazz pantheon was cemented; he could shrug off purist complaints.

“Rockit” is one of a few famous cuts that get back-story treatment in the memoir, along with the early “Watermelon Man,” which brought Hancock his first royalties stream; “Maiden Voyage,” a gracious, indelible statement of mid-’60s jazz; and the funked-out “Chameleon,” a 1970s standard with his Headhunters band.

Hancock mostly goes light on compositional technicalities in favor of studio tales and emotional highlights. It’s moving to learn, at several points, the influence of his sister Jean, a frustrated singer held back in several professions by race and gender barriers, and whose early death left Hancock with regrets about his own fraternal conduct.

The jazz world was (and still is) very male, of course, and Hancock ran with guys who, like Davis, fancied “beautiful cars, clothes, and women.” For his part, Hancock, who’s had a long, mostly happy marriage, says “I wasn’t a skirt-chaser, but I did like skirts.” It’s a stance — in the middle of the scene, but not overly committed — that he shows in other areas too: cerebral, leaving space to make his next move.

Two obsessions, however, form twin sinews of his story. One is with gear — born of a tinkerer’s instinct, honed as an engineering major, and set loose by the explosion, from the 1970s on, of synthesizers and computer tools. The details can get a bit much, but how Hancock went from old-school pianist to one listed on a 1980 album playing 15 gizmos (Clavitar, Minimoog, Vocoder, Apple II. . . ) lends texture to his creative journey.

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The other is Buddhism, which makes for wry anecdotes — the attempt to get an ailing Davis to chant is classic — but also passages on Hancock’s religious group that feel extraneous. But Hancock is telling his story his way, assisted by a writing partner, Lisa Dickey, and can’t be faulted for claiming his commitments.

Big jazz and pop names saturate the book. Hancock knows everyone, and close pals include Stevie Wonder and Quincy Jones. But there’s little gossip, nor much critical reflection on artistic life and milieu. “Possibilities’’ is a conventional as-told-to memoir in efficient prose devoid of adventure. It is, however, very effective at its paramount task: getting the reader to dig into the catalog of this restless jazz genius with newly edified ears.


Siddhartha Mitter can be reached at siddharthamitter@gmail.com.