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.