Herbie Hancock: Possibilities (2014) | virtual book

Herbie Hancock: Possibilities (2014)

by Herbie Hancock

#reviews #books #memoir #jazz Mentioned in On Writing (2000)

The audiobook narrated by Herbie is great. His impression of Miles is hilarious.

It’s not a beautifully written memoir like Patti Smith’s Just Kids or Tara Westover’s


, but it’s a worthy story. It’s fascinating to see how Herbie’s collaborations pushed his career forward and how he

reinvented himself

how to reinvent yourself

(This is an excerpt from my piece The Virtual Book.)

#essays #music #jazz #creativity #religion #art #career Mentioned in Herbie Hancock: Possibilities (2014), how to show instead of telling, how to tell a story #2

The first song of Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi is hard to describe. It eases in with watery synths and a muted trumpet, then a jagged riff played simultaneously on bass guitar and bass clarinet. The repetition of the riff becomes our steadying grip as the pace quickens and more instruments enter the flurry, each swirling in its own direction. For thirteen minutes, we follow Herbie and his crew as they chase the thrill of charting new territory.

Navigating Herbie’s diverse discography is just as difficult. A musical genius with a tinkering habit, Herbie composed jazz standards like Cantaloupe Island in the 60s, made funk classics in the 70s, and brought DJ scratching into the mainstream in the 80s. Often he’d reinterpret his old compositions using whatever new sounds he was experimenting with. The new millennium still did not slow Herbie. In 2008, he took home the Grammy for Album of the Year for a tribute to singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell. Now in his 80s, he tours the world playing his music. Spanning decades and genres, Herbie’s career almost makes more sense as the work of Herbie Hancock, Herbie Hancock Jr, and Herbie Hancock III.

In his memoir, Possibilities (2014), Herbie tells the stories that spurred his musical digressions. In the late 60s and early 70s, at a time when Herbie and his band engaged with Black Nationalist ideas of self-discovery and self-determination, Herbie’s music was spontaneous and experimental. Each band member adopted a Swahili name. Herbie became Mwandishi, meaning ‘composer’ or ‘writer’. The group improvised freely, unconcerned with reaching a wide audience. At their peak, their performances were spiritual experiences for the band and the small, captivated crowd.

It felt like the music was playing us, coming down from somewhere above, and we were just the vessels…everything my fingers played was connecting perfectly to everything [they were] playing. As we got deeper into the music we became one big, pulsating creature…

One day, after a rare night of partying through sunrise with his bandmates, a sleep-deprived Herbie could not muster the energy to start the show. He figured Buster Williams — AKA Mchezaji, ‘skilled player’— could ease them in with the bass; but then the intro became a 10-minute solo that jerked the band awake. By the end of the night, audience members had tears in their eyes. Herbie demanded an explanation from his bassist, and the answer would change his life: Nichiren Buddhism.

The couple hours that the band had spent sleeping before the show Williams had spent chanting Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō, a Buddhist meditation aiming to “fuse your life with the mystic law of cause and effect through sound.” Until now, Herbie had only found spiritual philosophies preaching esoteric ideas, demanding blind faith, and promising little until the afterlife. Buddhism offered a simple practice to empower him as a musician in this world. So Herbie did what Herbie does: he experimented.

As Herbie delved deeper into Buddhist practice and Mwandishi came to a natural end, he discovered a desire to connect to a broader audience. He nurtured inspiration from The Pointer Sisters and Sly & the Family Stone, resisting the “musical elitism” that would have him look down on funk music. In 1973, months after releasing his last Mwandishi record, Herbie released the groove-riddled Head Hunters debut album, one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time. Actual Proof, a song from the second Headhunters album, is named after Nichiren Buddhism’s promise to benefit one’s earthly life.

over and over, always curious about whether something could be done. Herbie shows how openness, curiosity, and determination can keep your work interesting for a long, long time.

My main complaint is about

the format

how to tell a story #2

(This is an excerpt from my piece The Virtual Book.)

#essays #mediums #story-telling #music #photography #videos #journalism Mentioned in Herbie Hancock: Possibilities (2014), how to show instead of telling

As satisfying as it was to hear Herbie narrate the stories in his audiobook, it was frustrating to never hear his music. Music snippets would’ve expressed much more than descriptions like “gorgeous house of sound” and “river of gorgeous sound”. Instead of working with a ghostwriter to write a book, perhaps Herbie should’ve collaborated with Ken Burns, creator of the Jazz documentary series, to create something more.

To tell the story of jazz music, Burns uses images and sound: narration, interviews, photos, videos, and music. The documentary series looks like a great PowerPoint slideshow. It’s not flashy, but it’s illuminating. The narrator doesn’t have to shower us with adjectives for us to imagine the scene because we can hear it in the music and see it in the photographs. Words tell us what is true, but our senses convince us of it.

In the introduction to his new book, Our America, Ken Burns writes:

I don’t just look at the photograph…I listen to it, as well. Are the troops tramping, the cannons firing, the leaves rustling? Is the bat cracking, the crowd cheering?…it has been my essential responsibility in every film I’ve made to try to animate that moment, to bring it alive.

Like Burns, YouTube video essayists offer us raw material instead of flattening it into words. Thomas Flight’s Why Are David Lynch Movies Like That? is dense with samples of Lynch’s works, and much better for it. His description of Lynch’s worst work as “still [radiating] a unique quality” would be abstract, unclear, if it weren’t spoken over clips from Dune. Dubbing audio over video is so common on YouTube that it’s easy to overlook how well it works. Imagine What Song Are You Listening To? videos without the song snippets: suddenly it would be as awkward to watch as it probably was to record.

Like authors, journalists and essayists insist on writing things the reader needs to see or hear. Pieces like The New Yorker’s recent one on painter Florine Stettheimer lack samples of the visual art they talk about, leaving the reader to collect descriptions of the painter’s style — “feathery, ornamental…faux-naïf, fluorescent” — and try to hold them, as they spill out of mind like water out of cupped hands, until they can look up her paintings. Why work so hard? Is this the writer’s job or the reader’s? The piece leaves a faint impression compared to Affairs of the Art, a short film available on The New Yorker’s YouTube channel: a shiver-inducing yet hilarious piece that combines writing, narration, drawings, sound effects, and music.

This is not to say we abandon writing. But can we compensate for its weaknesses by exploring other formats?

. Herbie’s music was nowhere to be found, not even in the audiobook. And his descriptions are a poor alternative.