Finding Zen in music

Jazz pianist and composer Herbie Hancock talks about an epiphany with the late Miles Davis that changed his life, writes GEOFFREY EU

Published Thu, Aug 28, 2014 · 10:00 PM
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HERBIE Hancock was having trouble finding his groove. It was the second half of the 1960s and the jazz pianist and future music legend, still only in his 20s and a key member of the Miles Davis Quintet, was jaded, depressed and worn down by life on the road, playing night after night in clubs and concert halls.

During a gig in Boston, as Hancock remembers it, he reached a low point in his career. "I was getting fed up with my playing - I was stuck in a rut and didn't know how to get out," says Hancock, speaking over the telephone from Los Angeles in a recent interview. "Miles noticed that I wasn't very happy and during someone else's solo he leaned over to me and - I thought he said, 'Don't play the butter notes.' "

On stage and in the throes of a creative swoon, Hancock struggled to make sense of the advice. Davis (who died in 1991) had a notoriously raspy voice and was given to making oblique references, so Hancock decided that he shouldn't play the fat, or obvious, notes. He says, "I interpreted that in a musical sense - like the third or seventh notes of a chord - so I carefully tried to eliminate the notes to see if it would free me up." Something clicked. "People seemed to enjoy the result, and I got more applause than I was getting before."

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