Monday, 4 May 2009

The Pianistic Andrew Hill


CALL him the piano master, piano virtuoso, pianissimo, pianistic Andrew Hill. The man deserves all the accolades you can heap on him.
Listening to his music, it is natural yet advanced; visionary yet approachable; beautiful and free. Since Andrew Hill came back to Blue Note records in 2006 with the release of Time Lines standing at the number two slot of that year’s Top 50 jazz songs, his profile has advanced remarkably. Evidenced by the list, 2006 was the year of the jazz elder statesmen, such as Ornette Coleman, who topped the list with Sound Grammar, Sonny Rollins at the third place with Sonny please and even the Art Ensemble of Chicago with Non cognitive aspects of the city long after the exit of its leader, Lester Bowie. This phenomenon proved convincingly that musical virility does not necessarily equate to youth.
As a pianist, Hill’s note choices remain cryptic, his phrase shapes angular and his movements scurry. As a composer-band leader, he created exotic, darkly luminous aural landscapes that inspired soloists- qualities you can find in his recorded works.
Andrew Hill created some of the very finest jazz albums of the 1960s. Quantifiably, perhaps the only difference between him, and for instance, Miles Davis is that Hill’s albums sold in relatively modest numbers; musicians like Miles became a public face of jazz, while Hill was one of those rare figures who sustained a probing internal dialogue with the music, pensively gazing in from the sidelines and imperfectibly nudging it in whatever way he saw fit.
Hill’s name of course remains inseparable from the outstanding series of recordings he made for Blue Note, beginning with Black Fair in 1963. At the core of these albums stood Hill’s own radical overhaul of the piano, a language cunningly positioned in a hinterland between Thelonius Monk’s surreal harmonic meltdown and Cecil Taylor’s absolute ‘outness’, a point of departure that allowed him to look both ways at once.
Not that anyone could mistake Hill. His touch was as brittle as a twig and as malleable as putty, as though preparing a white canvas for future development. The most immediately striking aspect of his style was a liberated ebbing and flowing robato that used the rhythm section not to plot out fundamentals, but as energy to ricochet against. Hill built sonic sounds that were filled with inquisitive asides and pregnant silences, each solo imbued with a sense of transforming the material at the same time as discovering what that material might be.
Hill has recorded quite some ground-breaking jazz. When his So in love was reissued in 2001, those eager for a fully formed vision of their hero were disappointed, but So in love remains a pathologically surprising record. Hill, bassist Malachi Favours and drummer James Slaughter were all high school friends and So in love was born of their discursive chewing-of-the- cord about music.
The prevailing influence on Hill is clearly Bud Powell; his Penthouse Party is a re-write of Powell’s Un Polo Loco, but his ability to distil multifarious inspiration is already emerging. A joyous Old Devil Moon is draped in a manically funky guise that audibly radicalises the Powell influence.
Another Hill original, Chiconga, juxtaposes a complex overlay of Latin rhythms with vocal intoning to produce a steely, blues – driven lament. But most revealing of the future is the title track. Hill opens with percusive gestures that sound like a xylophone compared to the graceful chordal sweeps that were supposed to introduce ballads. He also plays merry with the tune’s structure by abruptly accenting passing harmonic landmarks in the first chorus and, during his solo, crossing the plod of the rhythm section with implications of satellite tempos and alien meters. Here’s a pianist quite obviously far ahead of the game.
Seven years later, now in New York, and the true beginning of Hill’s career, he recorded Black Fire for Blue Note. Although he added ominous undertones to Joe Hendenson’s ‘Our thing a few months earlier as a sideman, the intriguing thing about Black Fire is that it defines itself as much by what it isn’t as what it is.
Although the opening track, Pumpkin, has something of the strident attitude of hard bop, Hill’s tricky identity which he then forensically deconstructs is evident. The title track is another example of Hill’s tightrope counterpoint between clarity and complexity.
At its core, his composition is a simple melody that odd digressions have turned into a stunner. Listen to Hill’s backing as Joe Henderson bravely orientates himself through the theme. He floats freely between dense scales and clusters, harmonic sequence pushes- to a more conceptual place; and his solo inhabits a different orbit. There is a profound unity of purpose between Hill’s oblique harmonies and his obliging of the instrument to reveal fresh timbral potential. If Monk achieved a similar feat in a brusque and succinct fashion, Hill deals in more light-footed, swift passages of sound that help to establish the groove in the process of providing a running commentary. Hill’s life-long custom of coolly viewing matters from the distance is operational.
HOWEVER, Smoke stack is perhaps his first genuine masterwork. The most immediately striking thing about it is, of course, the two bass line up, although Hill makes no bones about the fact that Richard Davis is his frontline partner and Khan is the bass player.
The title track opens with a marvellous Hill solo that has barrelhouse energy, even if the style itself has been jettisoned. The solo has a joyous lilt that contradicts the brooding archetype Hill likes to portray. A sonorously ‘open’ melodic interval rolls in to curt dissonant reprimands and it sounds like Hill is having fun. Davis and Khan create busy ambiguities nowhere more so than on the slippery modality of wailing wall, which builds a structural argument by jumping between ‘arco’ and ‘pizz’ bass, and having a different harmonic pattern to accompany each. The final piece, 30 pier Avenue finds Hill unveiling the full range of his gestures and what a surreal combination they make: single notes are tested against stacked dissonances as long jumping lines mediate.
Judgement was cut a month later and is worthy rather than stunning. Vibes player, Bobby Hutcherson sounds reluctant to match the provocations of Hill’s piano style and jams himself into an ambient middle ground. Most intriguing development of Hill’s piano style is Flea Flop in which rhythmic independence between right and left hands is pursued to the point of being cryptic.
Other sessions worth listening to are Points of departure, Compulsion, Change, Grassroots, and Dance with death among others. And in all these recordings, Hill demonstrates not only the ability to hold a combo together with the cohesiveness of a tight rhythm section unit, he is also able to create a unique sound that makes the trio setting of piano-bass-drums less boring to the jazz listener.
Born in Chicago in 1937, Hill had already acquired a comprehensive musical training by the time he relocated to New York City in 1961. He got encouragement from no less a figure than Earl Hines and a chance encounter with Paul Hindemith, a Chicago resident at the time, led to informal lessons with the great German composer. Hill then took a pattern followed by many emerging jazz musicians of the era. Playing in Rhythm and Blues bands was a right of passage, but more significant was his experience backing musicians travelling through the city like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis.
Andrew Hill was highly addicted to cigarette-smoking. When his wife who was his supporter and soul mate died, it became obvious that he himself was living on borrowed time. That he shouldered on until lung cancer claimed him in April 2007 says much about the magical elixir of his music. With a poignant sense of closure, Hill was re-signed to Blue note in 2005 and delivered them Time lines, a masterly valedictory statement.
When the obituaries were written, he was properly mourned as a jazz great, even if the sorrow was tinged with certain collective culpability – why was such a potent figure in our music allowed to drift away, and for so long?

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