EXCLUSIVE: Herbie Hancock, Saha Frere-Jones Talk 'Possibilities,' Flying Lotus, Miles Davis and Buster Williams at BAM

Herbie Hancock, Sasha Frere-Jones

A classically trained pianist since the age of 7, Herbie Hancock did not predict his success would be in music, let alone the world of jazz. In fact, he went to college for engineering. To divulge into how that pivotal change happened leading to his fourteen Grammy awards and his long anticipated memoir Possibilities; Hancock and New Yorker magazine critic Sasha Frere-Jones laid it all out in front of a nearly sold out audience on Wednesday night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Rose Cinema as part of the Unbound: A Literary Series

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They talked at length about Hancock’s Chicago high school days, classic R&B and Miles Davis. Long winded and winding at times, the hour plus evening exuded Hancock’s elixir: Buddhism and good, old honest charm.

“This is all in the book,” joked Hancock. “Verbatim.”

Hancock started with how he became a jazz fan during the Senior Varieties show at his Hyde Park High School in Chicago. From there he asked his mother for George Sherman records, (which he unknowingly already owned) listened to Oscar Peterson and vocal groups like the The Four Freshman and Al Benson’s R&B station. 

He attributes his second teacher, Mrs. Short, as his inspiration to play piano in a realm other than classical. She played Chopin for Hancock and it sounded like piano playing he had never heard before.

“The touch, the nuances, the feeling that she had, the softness when it was necessary. It made an impression on me,” said Hancock. “I was a little kid. I said, “Can you teach me to play the piano like that?” she said, “I can try.”

It was the idea of touch that stylistically stayed with Hancock. From there he nostalgically recalled his college days in Ohio trying to organize a jazz concert. During that time, he became true to himself and realized where his heart really was: jazz.

“It wasn't really a choice, it was very obvious to me,” said Hancock.

Frere-Jones led the conversation further with gems of knowledge from Hancock’s score to Blow Up to Super Cat and Biggie Smalls sampling “Watermelon Man,” to his work with Tony Williams and his beautifully detailed account on turning to Buddhism, an act which he graciously thanks Buster Williams for during a performance in Seattle in their Mwandishi days. 

“People in the audience were not only applauding, they were going nuts and I could feel myself waking up,” said Hancock on Williams playing the bass by himself for nearly 15 minutes, waking up the band on a night they just were not on at all.

As audience members ran to the stage and said that they not only heard the music but experienced it, Hancock decided he needed whatever made Williams so on that night.

The talk was followed by an audience generated Q&A and Hancock graciously signing copies of Possibilities.


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