Andrew Hill

One of the most original pianists to emerge in the 1960s, Andrew Hill teetered between straight-ahead playing (as a sideman) and the avant-garde, and most of his own albums exist in the middle of those two patches, never banal or too extreme. Hill is one of the rare birds who forged his own style as a player and a composer.

Black Fire
Nov. 1963 / Blue Note RVG

Hill’s Blue Note debut introduces a singular jazz vision. Though not of extreme avant-garde character, his compositions push the players (tenor Joe Henderson, bassist Richard Davis, and drummer Roy Haynes) into unfamiliar territories. Consider the title track, which alternates a sprightly waltz theme with a much darker chordal exposition. Henderson weaves memorable melodic threads in his solo, while Hill’s statement becomes a mini-concerto of abstraction - blunt, Monkian accents punctuating a whirlwind of oblique harmonies and fleet motivic exploration. One must listen closely for all the fascinating details in his playing. His harmonic conceptions are a world unto themselves, evoking no familiar moods, and he skirts around the beat every which way, sometimes darting a couple of bars ahead and ambushing the pulse as it catches up to him. Where Monk would tease us, Bud would dazzle us, and Evans would seduce us, Hill presents a shadier alternative that is no less self-realized.

Peculiar as Hill’s tunes might be, they are also crisp and attractive. A throbbing bass pulse starts “Pumpkin”, wherein a slightly mournful melody ties itself into a knot and then starts over. The stop-time rhythm of the theme is continued during the solos, catching Haynes off guard almost every time. The alternate take features a smoother solo from Henderson, but in both takes, it sounds like the band is only just hanging onto the form. “Cantarnos” is a somber number, while the aforementioned title track balances contrasting moods. “Land of Nod” follows an odd thematic path: a triple-meter rhythm with a cyclic sax pattern turns to an accented motif and then six emphatic chords in cadence. The final melodic phrase seems to sum up the preceding information, yet Hill adds a two-chord tag that suggests further mystery. In the drumless miniature “McNeil Island”, Hill toys with unpredictable chords as if they were the most natural sequence in the world and Joe embroiders the theme in one of his most profound solos on record. The saxophonist sits out “Subterfuge” and “Tired Trade”, although neither one becomes a conventional piano trio performance, as Hill remains aloof over frisky support from Davis and Haynes. “Subterfuge” lurches lightly in a continual state of restlessness, and “Tired Trade” is more compact but has an equally brooding atmosphere.

The original compositions and sympathetic lineup add up to an absorbing album. Henderson’s warm sound complements Hill’s piano, while Richard Davis grounds everything with fat bass work. Catalyst Haynes knows when to push the music, when to stand aside and comment, and when to do both at once. As much as this is a flattering portrait of the leader, it’s also a fine example of Roy’s alert drumming.

Dec. 1963 / Blue Note RVG

Thick plumes of it, violet on navy blue. Hill’s inscrutable piano sits above two basses (Eddie Khan and Richard Davis) and the artful drums of Roy Haynes. The music escorts the listener into dark pastures overcast with Hill’s enveloping chord voicings. Following up on Black Fire’s brilliance, there’s such material as “Wailing Wall” (mourning, then hopeful), “Ode to Von” (recalling Herbie Nichols’ song-mazes), and “30 Pier Avenue”, an askew blues vibe. Smokestack’s compositions sort of run together, but that has more to do with the playing than how they might appear on paper. There’s a sense of inevitability to the downcast title track theme, and desolation hounds “The Day After”. It’s not that Hill means to perturb, but his chord clusters call to mind something other than sunshine and lollipops. There isn’t a single bit of walking swing anywhere, and yet the claves and accents have a natural if off-center flow. The purpose of the bass doubling isn’t always clear, aside from the bowed versus plucked deployment in “Wailing Wall” and maybe the fortuitous counterpoint that occurs on occasion. Anyway, the album rests on Hill’s piano puzzles. Fairly essential, at least for me.

Jan. 1964 / Blue Note RVG

Unlike Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones doesn’t play small ball. He barely does anything on the drums unless it’s connected to an ongoing momentum. He’s not the sort of player who can just flam his snare as a musical gesture; all of his limbs must be moving at once. And that’s where Judgment takes off a little bit from Black Fire and Smokestack, although it retains their dark aura. Vibist Bobby Hutcherson joins Hill in the chordal/melodic area, while Richard Davis remains on bass and Mr. Jones swats the sticks. The quartet is dense with overtones - harmonic clouds hover over polyrhythmic sea waves and melodies take the role of afterglow. “Siete Ocho” is a good example, with a 7/8 undercurrent so tense that one might not even notice the theme on first listen.

The depth of the solos is noticeable, though, especially Andrew’s dissertations in “Flea Flop”, “Reconciliation”, and the cartoonish blues “Yokada Yokada”. As with the preceding albums, Hill’s touch masks his adventurousness at the keyboard, and I don’t know of any precedent for how he plays simultaneously inside and outside the changes in a pantonal stream. His improvisations fluctuate in density and speed, and his rhythms are confounding, all the more so against Elvin’s spider webs. Hutcherson gets a lot of space, and being the chameleon he is, he’s as oblique as Hill most of the time.

Composition-wise, the chord movement of “Siete Ocho” is interesting, and “Reconciliation” puts forth a conversational theme, the last part of which sounds like a pet lick of Andrew’s. The title track ranks with the composer’s best. The ballad “Alfred” calms the waters, although Davis’ random bass glisses smell like sabotage. Another rich yet challenging disc worth the listening effort.

Point of Departure
March 1964 / Blue Note RVG

Where the first three albums have an ambiguous ambience, like chasing a phantasm through the woods, Departure wheels the beast upon its hunter. A three-horn frontline (Joe Henderson, Kenny Dorham, Eric Dolphy) provides mucho solo potential, and their ensemble parts are an outgrowth of Hill’s off-center piano style. A harmonized chart in Hill’s world isn’t necessarily a means of expanding the music’s reach, nor of strengthening its attack; it’s just an interlocking of unlikely melodic threads. Sound color plays a role too, especially in the contrasts of Dorham’s gray trumpet tone, Dolphy’s bass clarinet, and Henderson’s tenor. Underneath, bassist Richard Davis does a strong day’s work on this album, and drummer Tony Williams contributes his inimitable feel. With a list that includes Roy, Elvin, Tony, Joe Chambers, and Billy Higgins, it’s safe to say that Hill played with the best of the ‘60s drummers.

Point of Departure is often tagged as an avant-garde album thanks to Dolphy’s reed histrionics and Williams’ loose drums. In fact, all of these freedoms exist within structures, so it’s not a case of reckless racket. In “Flight 19”, chattering horn commentary is tethered to a through-line ostinato, so it might sound free but it’s actually quite controlled. Or in “New Monastery”, Dolphy’s alto fireworks are contained by a firm chord progression. The apogee of formal concern is the multi-part “Spectrum”, which goes through a series of vignettes, including a weird 5/4 dance, an excellent bass solo, alto and flute spots, a moody Dorham solo (his best of the album), and piano and drum breaks, all bookended by a twisted theme.

The flagship “Refuge” is my favorite track. Hill covers a lot of ground in his solo, as does Tony in accompaniment, and Davis’ bass solo is what made me a fan of his many years ago. Dolphy plays some astounding alto, while the sounds of Henderson and Dorham are as valuable as their notes. The elegiac “Dedication” relies of both of them; Dorham leads the sobering theme, while Henderson’s tenor gives the album its first and only rays of sunshine. The tasty Hill/Dorham/Henderson blend had already been brewed back on the latter’s Our Thing session of 1963, though they’re in a more esoteric situation here, obviously.

The only disappointing alternate take is “Flight 19”, slower and not nearly as tight as the master. Meanwhile, Hill’s solo on the “New Monastery” alternate is one of the best on the CD. For the rougher edges and slight “work in progress” feel, I don’t rate Departure a masterpiece, but it’s a touchstone for the multi-textured complexity of Hill’s later ‘60s writing.

June 1964 / Blue Note Connoisseur

Hill fattens the portfolio with his fifth studio trip in a period of months. Richard Davis remains the bassist of choice and vibe man Bobby Hutcherson is back for another go. Drummer Joe Chambers and tenor John Gilmore round out the quintet. Gilmore’s sun-charred sound blends well with the Hill-Hutch synergy, minus a few sour tones, while Chambers’ personal spark is somewhat lost in the mix, a few polymetric twists notwithstanding. The music looks to Point of Departure’s proto-avant tone with a continuing emphasis on Hill’s augmented and diminished compositions. Accepting Hill’s pen and piano as a constant, the distinguishing identity of each of his ‘60s albums comes down to the players, and Hill made a point of using different voices to bring his music to life.

Gilmore supplies a lot of aggressive lines, though he takes a softer approach to “No Doubt” and sits out “The Griots”, an aloof piece that would have fit well on Judgment. Everyone finds their game in the abstract blues “Le Serpent Qui Danse”, and I like the way the piano lingers around after the final theme statement of that track. “Symmetry” recalls the angular Point of Departure material. The masterpiece of the date to my ears is “Black Monday”, an elongated ballad-etude with an introspective melody and a small quartal-harmony kick. It encapsulates how Hill creates an emotion rather than trying to express one through established means.

If there are complaints to be had, it’s that the band doesn’t always gel (Gilmore sometimes feels like a hired gun) and Hill returns to familiar phrases in a couple of his solos. But I’m holding the music to the high standard of the previous albums. It took me a while to embrace this CD, and I finally caved by meeting each track individually. “Black Monday” and “Symmetry” are among his best.

Feb. 1965 / Blue Note Connoisseur

This 2006 CD does a discographical search and rescue of seven tracks, five of which first appeared on the mid-70s double LP One for One (along with some other cuts now available on the Mosaic Select box below). The quintet for the session includes Hill, Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, Richard Davis, and Joe Chambers, and most of the playing is pretty out there. Witness the “Eris” blues, which by the third chorus starts to render the 12-bar form unrecognizable under adventurous improvisations. “Calliope” and “Euterpe” are just as bold, pulling unusual things out of the players. That’s not to say that these tunes are better than anything Hill had previously recorded, and given the overall level of freedom, I can understand why they may have been temporarily shelved by Blue Note back in the day. (A few ensemble imperfections might be another reason.) On the other hand, the stately “Pax” ballad is a gem with fine testimonies from tenor, cornet, and piano. The minor-key piano trio piece “Erato” recalls the moody aura of Smokestack. The other hornless track, “Roots ‘n Herbs”, has hints of a soul-jazz backbeat but turns into a multi-layered exploration. Pax isn’t the ideal starting place for the newcomer, as the music is rather chancy, but it does a big favor for Hill completists.

Oct. 1965 / Blue Note RVG

This is the freest of Hill’s proper Blue Notes, not counting some of the music that wound up on Pax and the Mosaic collection. Surrounded by John Gilmore, Freddie Hubbard, Cecil McBee, Joe Chambers, and two percussionists, Hill reconnoiters a free range of rhythm-heavy textures. His jagged piano playing encroaches on Cecil Taylor territory, while the pulsing grooves – especially in the 12/8 “Limbo” – remind me of Herbie Hancock’s Inventions and Dimensions, although Compulsion is a more dangerous record. The title track and “Limbo” both unleash liberated solos over driving polyrhythms; “Legacy” does the same except that the horns sit out and Hill takes all the solo space. The grooves are strong and flexible – hear the ultra coolness of drummer Chambers locking in with the percussionists a few minutes into “Compulsion” – and the piano work is quite stimulating. I wish I could say the same about Hubbard, but he doesn’t belong this far afield, topping the surface with superficial notes instead of extracting much from “inside” the music. I prefer to concentrate on the rhythm section during his trumpet solos.

“Premonition”, more pensive than the beat-driven pieces, is a free-elegy that includes beautifully unsettled piano, a bowed solo from guest bassist Richard Davis, tinkling thumb piano, and bass clarinet from Gilmore. Compulsion lacks the structure of the nearby albums, but it extends Hill’s unusual keyboard logic and is an accessible place to follow the artist “one step beyond.”

Dance With Death
Oct. 1968 / Blue Note Connoisseur

Charles Tolliver (trumpet), Joe Farrell (saxes), Victor Sproles (bass), and Billy Higgins (drummer man) join Hill for a very strong program. The half dozen compositions all feature complex, off-kilter melodies, even though some of the structures and rhythms (particularly in the title track and “Fish ‘n Rice”) are quite simple. (Songs named after entrees almost always have a funky groove of some sort, not that Hill practiced the idea much.) “Partitions” and “Black Sabbath” could both be considered advanced hardbop; Farrell’s tenor solo in the latter sits between Coltrane and Brecker, and Tolliver’s trumpet solo is full of enticing motifs. “Yellow Violet” is a tart song with Farrell on soprano, and “Love Nocturne” is an excellent, long-lined ballad. The quintet has no trouble tackling Hill’s complex charts, not even when “Partitions” juggles tempo and meter. “Dance With Death” is heard in two versions where the Sproles/Higgins groove, unresolved melody, and striking tenor solos make for a great piece. The pianist plays against the grain, sometimes luring bass and drums along for miniature tangents. Two hands on the keyboard, Andrew cultivates thickets of crossing lines and precarious intervals, occasionally summoning a tune’s melody somewhere along the way.

This session sat on the shelf for a dozen years before its initial release, an indication that the music was, if not ahead of its time, then at least too far out for 1968 Blue Note (after Alfred Lion left). It’s certainly no more inaccessible than Point of Departure, although it doesn’t have that album’s frontline star power. But Farrell is a riveting player, and it’s a shame that this prime example of his sound went unheard at the time. The other appeal is Hill’s mind-expanding melodic concepts. If Black Fire didn’t exist, this might be my favorite AH title.

Passing Ships
Nov. 1969 / Blue Note Connoisseur

This session was initially rejected on the grounds of uncertain recording quality and ensemble work, but the stereo tapes were restored and released in 2003 thanks to producer Michael Cuscuna (with Hill’s approval). The critical and popular response was unanimously positive. That a rejected session over thirty five years old could garner such praise says a lot about Hill’s addictive appeal. The trumpets are a little faint in the mix in a couple spots; otherwise, the recording has no major blemishes.

The music is for a nine-piece band charted with sometimes diabolical design. The main soloists are Joe Farrell on reeds, Woody Shaw and Dizzy Reece on trumpets, and Julian Priester on trombone; Bob Northern (French horn) and Howard Johnson (tuba) lend support; and the rhythm section is Hill, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Lenny White. The leadoff “Sideways” is best described as enigmatic post-bop, followed by Farrell’s English horn singing over the misty landscape of the title track. “Plantation Bag” grooves two-note funk under a scrolling melody and hip solos. “Noon Tide” borrows the mambo vamp from 1965’s “Catta” but gets bogged down by cumbersome support lines under Priester’s solo. “The Brown Queen” and “Cascade” splay in different directions and are both bewildering on first listen, but as with most of Hill’s music, their logic becomes apparent with repeated exposure. The final track “Yesterday’s Tomorrow” is both poignant (the moody trumpet theme) and humorous (the slow oom-pah tuba).

Of the players, Joe Farrell commands the most attention, mostly for his rugged tenor sax improvisations and also for his stints on four other axes, like the ghostly alto flute that haunts “Noon Tide”, or the loneliness of the “Passing Ships” English horn. Hill tends to get lost under the ensemble configurations, although every written bar carries his signature, and he emerges with a fine piano solo in “Yesterday’s Tomorrow”. Some of his arrangements get a little too ambitious, and one can hear why he may have initially passed on the session: there are a couple of rough spots in execution, and a few written parts turn out awkwardly. However, the vast majority of the music is quite engrossing, close to Dance with Death in style and tone. All seven compositions are valuable additions to the Hill legacy.

Mosaic Select
Feb 1967-Jan 1970 / Mosaic Records

Since Passing Ships was a triumph, Cuscuna decided to once again raid the Blue Note cupboard and clear out the rest of Hill’s orphaned tapes. The irony is that at the time of this exhumation, not all of Hill’s proper Blue Note titles were in print! The carts were rolling in front of the horses. In any case, this File 13 disclosure was ‘specialty’ enough to be shuffled off to Mosaic for a Select 3-disc set, as Blue Note never would have made it a mainstream release. Connoisseurs will take the most pleasure and instruction from the music, and they’ll recognize the few tracks that made their way to the ‘70s Hill grab bag One for One. All else is previously unreleased, i.e., shelved, abandoned, ditched, discarded, rejected, booted, etc. Whatever made it suddenly acceptable? Let’s see, in presented order:

January 16 and 23, 1970. With Charles Tolliver (trumpet), Pat Patrick and Bennie Maupin (saxes and flutes), Ron Carter (bass), Paul Motian or Ben Riley (drums). I suspect that the box set orders the sessions by quality, because this and the next session are clearly the most successful. These half dozen pieces would have made a worthy album on their own, and in fact three of them wound up being released in the later ‘70s. The two takes of “Ocho Rios” contain a sneaky Carter bassline, colorful solos, and snappy drumming from Motian on the master. “Without Malice”, a remake of “Cascade” from Passing Ships, swings with authority, as does “The Dance”, and both have crafty horn arrangements. (Baritone sax fits Hill’s music nicely.) Tolliver’s hardbop trumpet stands tall against the outbound reedists, and Hill does some dandy piano work. The backbeat pop-jam “Diddy Wah” is disposable, but the introspective “Ode to Infinity” more than makes up for it. “Satin Lady” rotates a couple of fetching hooks over a lazy swing beat. With all the good tunes, I have no idea why half the session was initially rejected, unless it was for the very minor ensemble fluffs in a couple tunes (nothing worse than what you might occasionally hear on a proper album). So we’re off to a good start.

June 13 and August 1, 1969. With either Carlos Garnett or Bennie Maupin on sax or flute, Richard Davis or Ron Carter on bass, Freddie Waits or Mickey Roker on drums, and a string quartet. Given Hill’s penchant for texture, the strings are not surprising and he integrates them brilliantly. They’re responsible for the fugue-like, mystical theme of “Illusion”, surely one of the more haunting Hill compositions. The strings also back the solos, which in the case of “Illusion” occur over a subdued funk beat. “Poinsettia” grooves a little underneath Maupin’s wafting flute theme, while the mini piano etude “Fragments” searches for a classical connection. “Soul Mate” goes the obvious backbeat route and is the only disappointing track. From the June date, the outstanding “Monkash” puts the strings to their most dramatic use, adding tense tremolos and a doubling of the main thematic line. The strings contribute pizzicato lines to “Mahogany”, which includes improvisations on three different rhythmic planes; it’s amazing how the rhythm section splits up into different meters there. Garnett takes terrific tenor solos on both “Monkash” and “Mahogany”. I daresay that these string quartet sessions are alone worth the price of the Mosaic, despite a small handful of ensemble gaffes.

May 17 1967. With Ron Carter on bass and drummer Teddy Robinson, this session has a looser, “let’s jam on these sketches and see what happens” kind of feel. “Interfusion” and “Chained” feature a lot of skittering Hill work that finds him more impulsive than usual. “MOMA” is a beautiful song, the most memorable of the date. For the other tracks, Hill doubles on organ and soprano sax. The latter makes an ill-advised appearance behind Carter’s bass solo in “Six at the Top”, an otherwise decent improv. The organ first appears all creepy-like in the middle of “Resolution”, and Hill also uses it to introduce “Nine at the Bottom”. Though Jimmy Smith needn’t worry, Hill has a personalized approach to the organ that’s nice in small doses. Part of the reason this session was rejected, I reckon, was because of awkward spaces in the music. Even though Carter’s solos are cool and Robinson is never short of spark, there’s the occasional rehearsal feel, especially when Hill makes the silent journey between piano and organ. Overall, the music is vague, “MOMA” excepted.

October 31, 1967. With Woody Shaw, Robin Kenyatta, Sam Rivers, Howard Johnson, Herbie Lewis, and Teddy Robinson. We’re now up to Disc 3, where quality dips a lot. The jungle-din freedom of this date makes one really appreciate the forms and boundaries of Hill’s other music, and the material might have had a better life in the hands of a smaller band. Tunes like “Mother’s Tale” and “Oriba” suffer from wild pitches and hootenanny free solos. Any interest has to do with the listener’s affection for the soloists, but then again, I love Shaw and Rivers and this is hardly a fun place to hear them. They play well, but the band’s sound is so anarchic that it doesn’t mean much. Hill is obscured as both a player and writer. I can only point to “Enamorado” as a valuable sketch, and the dual-sax solos of “Oriba” are mildly entertaining, but that sort of thing has been done much better elsewhere.

February 10, 1967. With Kenyatta, Rivers, Cecil McBee, Robinson, and Spaulding Givens. “Awake” stands out as a provocative composition, one that might have been perfect for the Miles Davis quintet of the time. Yet it like the rest of the five tracks is poisoned by the wail of Robin Kenyatta’s alto. Kenyatta may be an effective player in other contexts, but he pierces and smears his notes into a constant whine - and Andrew Hill’s music should not be whiny, should it? Meanwhile, Givens’ small percussives are a nice if incongruous touch, Rivers takes to flute and Hill doubles on organ again. Not much of this session amounts to anything except rudderless noise, too diffuse, too ignorant of what the compositions may or may not have intended. Like the Halloween session, this is of marginal interest.

Two out of three ain’t bad as they say, and that’s the general scoresheet on this box. It’s worth it for the better moments, and who knows, maybe other listeners dig the third disc far more than I do. I find it interesting that these free experiments don’t come close in quality to the controlled freedoms of his earlier music. Sound quality ranges from very good (the first two sessions) to very okay (the trio stuff) to who cares (Disc 3’s jams have weird instrument balances, mostly dimming Hill). Hooray again to the string quartet music.

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