Book Review: Possibilities

“My mother is still mad that I left the symphony. When I stopped playing classical and went to jazz, I got crap for it. When I left jazz to do space music, I got crap for it. When I left space music to do funk, I got crap for it. And when I left funk to do what I’m doing now, I’m still getting crap for it. I’m doing this because I have to do it. If the fans come, great! If they don’t come it doesn’t matter.  I have to do this – because I want to do it.”

The theme of this remarkable book is innovation and improvisation in the ever-changing world of one of the most creative musicians on the American music scene – for decades.

Herbie Hancock gained national presence as the piano player with Miles Davis’ second great quintet, 1964 – 1969. He tells the story of his audition with Miles. Davis invited him to his apartment in New York to play with some other musicians. Then Miles disappeared and let the group play. He listened on the intercom from upstairs. When Miles finally returned to the studio, Herbie, sweating and nervous, looked at him. In his characteristic raspy voice, Miles said, “Niiiiiice touch.” 

Later Miles had the musicians come back for three days of playing in his basement, with him popping in only now and then. Finally Miles came down and said, “Come to the 30th Street Studio on Tuesday.” As Miles started back up the stairs, Herbie said, “I’m confused. Am I in the band?” Miles turned to him with a hint of a smile, “You makin’ a record, motherfucka!”

Herbie was drawn to jazz because of its improvisation, “…truly being in the moment, exploring what you don’t know. Classical music seemed more cerebral, but jazz was both cerebral and intuitive.”

Years ago I interviewed a classical pianist who commented, “I don’t get jazz. I’ve spent my whole life learning how to play the little black dots on the page correctly. These jazz guys don’t care about that.”

All of this reminded me of my interview with tenor saxophonist, Anton Schwartz: “Improvisation is a way of being. I really value it in running my life. I love being surprised by things… waking up in the morning and not knowing what I’m going to do.” See the complete interview at http://www.rickgilbert.net/#1366.

Possibilities is rich with jazz and music history. Even if you are no jazz fan, it is an entertaining read. For example, a record company was about to release “Watermelon Man.” Herbie’s friend and mentor, Donald Byrd, told him not to give up the rights to his compositions. At the risk of losing the contract, Herbie stood up to the record company and kept the rights to his music. Because of that, today he is very well off. 

Herbie tells us that Miles didn’t talk about things like keys, notes, and chords. He talked more about colors and shapes he wanted. “Once, when he saw a woman stumble walking down the street, he pointed to her and said, ‘Play that.'”

Through photography, I got to meet Herbie two years ago at the Monterey Jazz Festival. I donated a photo I had taken of him to the educational fund-raising event. To enhance the asking price of the photo, I asked Herbie to sign it.  

I’ve often drawn a parallel between jazz improv and what speakers need to do when presenting to senior leadership. A successful mid-level presenter will be loose and in the moment, or as Herbie said, “both cerebral and intuitive.” So in my brief time with him, I asked, “Herbie, I work with executives and encourage them to be more improvisational. What advice should I give them?” Herbie said, “Tell them to trust themselves more.” 

Pick up a copy of Possibilities. You’ll enjoy the read.

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