At 75, pianist and composer Andrew Hill finally passed away after battling lung cancer for the past few years. As is the case with nearly any great jazz composer, Hill's playing has often been overshadowed by his writing. Of course, a player's sound is often inseparable from his compositional voice, and that seems true enough with Hill. He's often aligned with Monk and Herbie Nichols (with a touch of Bud and Tatum), but no amount of familiarity with these players can prepare someone for an extended listening session of the craggy, labyrinthine Point of Departure, the ghostly pallor of Judgment! or the churning dual-bass of Smoke Stack. Hill's performance always takes unpredictable turns with a stuttering kind of momentum, his keyboard stylings reflected in, and extending from, his songwriting.
One interesting aspect of his discography is each album's distinct instrumentation. In the liner notes to Point of Departure, Nat Hentoff mentions, "Hill is still trying to get widespread enough recognition so that he can form and sustain his own combo." That was written in 1964. Over his career, while Hill worked with a recognizable constellation of players, he didn't establish a regular working band but instead changed his band roster with each date. In the liners to the Mosaic Select set, the pianist himself points out to Michael Cuscuna, "I was having trouble at that time finding people to play my music the way I heard it" (with all due respect to all of his sidemen, of course). In my view, this approach is just as well. For instance, hearing him alongside different drummers -- Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones and Tony Williams -- is a revelation.
My own first (unwitting) exposure to Hill was Hank Mobley's No Room For Squares. I love those beautifully dark, icy block chords that open "Three Way Split," and his gorgeous, watery accompaniment and solo on "Carolyn" is disarming. He'd made his first appearance as a Blue Note sideman on Joe Henderson's Our Thing a month earlier, and his Blue Note debut as a leader, Black Fire, was a month later.
And, of course, Hill's songs themselves were distinctive in innumerable ways: slippery, tangled, sparse, murky, shadowed, lush, mystical, furious, with countless motivic affinities and divergences. But each piece is a self-contained compositional world, bolstered by the playing and vision of its ingenious architect.
NPR Jazz (see the inset links to Hill and Bobby Hutcherson on J@LC and Hill's performance on Piano Jazz)
Dark Forces Swing
Do the Math
Straight, No Chaser
There Stands the Glass
Visit Hill's press page for more articles.
See an earlier SWO post.