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.
26-year-old Benny Reid's debut is an artful showcase for his well-sculpted compositions. The Indiana University graduate has a full, buttery alto sax sound with a touch of grit at moments. His luminous songs on Findings provide the perfect backdrop for his haloed tone. Then again, his tunes are actually dramatic enough to be the focus themselves. He proudly wears the compositional influence of Pat Metheny: lush keyboards, evocative pop- and Brazil-inspired harmony, storytelling, picture-painting. But while the vibe is familiar, Reid's alto voice gives it some subtle new colors.
The ear-grabbing opener, "Destiny?", is a catchy, syncopated groove with some ethereal, wordless vocals from Jeff Taylor. Cuban-born guitarist Richard Padron appropriately nods at Metheny and lays some brief statements in just the right places while Antonio Sanchez keeps things moving with some skittering cymbal work. Reid's solo isn't reckless or overly flashy; it serves the composition rather than itself. The acceleration from his slow-groove solo back into the driving, chant-like melody is a rewarding moment. An expert colorist and accompanist, Aaron Goldberg splits his duties between Fender Rhodes and piano throughout the date. His milky piano voicings are the perfect bookend on the symmetrical "Findings: a Quest For Peace," and like the leader, his solo here focuses on feel and melody before chops. But he brings out those sparkling, cascading runs he's known for -- with a soupcon of gospel -- on "Transient Melody."
Reid's solos aren't the hard-blowing, something-to-prove affair some young players often engage in. In fact, he modestly defers to, and enhances, the tune. His solo grows from his elegantly simple melodies and the space around him on the contemplative "Waves of Red," but he can also negotiate funkier territory like his rhythmic feature on the title cut. "Dancing With My Father" is undoubtedly a high point. The spare piano ostinato and sax variations build while the harmony seems to get brighter with every chord change. Reid lets the song breathe, and with Sanchez's drums and Padron's jangly acoustic guitar, you can almost feel the breeze rushing through. (Listening to the harmonic movement and drum interlude in the seventh minute, I can't help but think of Metheny's "The First Circle.") Goldberg's signature chops give his Rhodes feature plenty of momentum, setting up Reid's patient, lyrical solo.
The compositions themselves are Findings's main virtue, with emotional depth and sonic breadth ranging ranges from intimate to oceanic. A young player who displays his influences as proudly as his ambition, Reid is a skillful writer. And he isn't afraid to tackle these sprawling compositions with superlative colleagues. His debut is well worth hearing -- a true find.
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