Ben Ratliff of the New York Times wrote this wonderful piece on Andrew Hill last Friday, touching on Hill's youth in Chicago, teaching himself accordion and piano, his brief but formative stint with Charlie Parker, and his fascination with melody as rhythm. Angular rhythmic concepts, unique harmonic language and dark, rhapsodic compositions are hallmarks of Hill's music.
Young Hill became a student of classical composer Paul Hindemith in Chicago and studied with Sun Ra saxophonist Pat Patrick later on. By the time he moved to New York in 1961, he'd already served alongside Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Patrick, Von Freeman as well as vocalists Johnny Hartman and Dinah Washington.In the early '70s, Hill was a composer-in-residence at Colgate University before coming out to the West Coast, specifically Northern California and later Portland, to continue teaching before going back to NYC in '89.
In analyses of Hill's music, you often find it said that it "follows its own logic," the same way Monk's identifiable style stood alone but was also coherent if accepted on its own terms. Hill was so focused on his own sound in his earlier years that he turned down a gig with Miles Davis. He felt he could not adequately serve Miles's music without a more developed personal style. Supposedly, Hill would keep the radio off, not listen to records and not go to clubs for days at a stretch so he could practice without the influence of others' sounds. This is not to say he doesn't value other players' contributions, of course; he cites Parker, Earl Hines, Dave Brubeck and Max Roach as some of his favorite innovators.
In the liner notes to Hill's recently issued Mosaic Select boxset, producer Michael Cuscuna recalls a performance of Hill's music in Tokyo with Bobby Hutcherson, Woody Shaw and Joe Henderson. The windy weather caused the music to fly off, and the players tried to secure the sheets to the stands. Hill himself ran over to the players' stands on several occasions. Cuscuna thought Hill was trying to help keep the music from flying away, but after the gig Shaw and Henderson said to the producer, "This music is hard enough to play. Can you get him to stop rewriting it while we're playing it?"
Even now, Hill and his music have that same spirit of restless invention. In the March 2006 Downbeat article by John Murph, Marty Ehrlich notes, "Andrew is not a stylist. He hasn't codified an Andrew Hill way of playing for people to imitate. I don't know how you would even sound like him." While Hill's approach and compositions have the boldness and uniqueness of an influential voice, Ehrlich's right: true imitation of Hill is probably impossible. So much for the sincerest form of flattery.
His website has some full-length mp3s of an exclusive solo piano performance and other sound clips. Also, buy Time Lines, Hill's newest release as he enters his third fruitful relationship with Blue Note. Find more about Hill's new music, his recent and ongoing battle with lung cancer and praise from his contemporaries in the March issue of Downbeat.
And if you're in New York, Hill's playing with his quintet at Birdland, Wednesday, March 1st through Saturday, March 4th. You have to go listen and let me live vicariously through you.