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Andrew Hill: 1931-2007

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Dusted's Matthew Wuethrich looks back on the incredible life and musical career of Andrew Hill.

Andrew Hill: 1931-2007

In the early morning of April 20, 2007, Andrew Hill passed away. He was 75 years old and lived in Jersey City, N.J. He is survived by his wife Joanne Robinson Hill, a niece, a nephew and a cousin. source: the Hill family’s official press release

My sole opportunity to hear Andrew Hill play live came in November of 2006 at the Tampere Jazz Happening. He was touring with his New Quintet, four young firebrands who posed an energetic contrast to the 75-year-old pianist. Hill cut a slight figure on stage and moved methodically, the lingerings of a 2004 heart attack and recent battle with lung cancer apparent. His playing was spare, to say the least, his strangely shaped chords punctuating the dense stew kicked up by the quartet only every few measures. The initial feeling was disappointment, and more heavily, sadness— for Hill the end was obviously in sight. But in retrospect, that disappointment has mutated. First, the music was indeed magnificent, characteristically elusive and teeming with directions. Second, Hill was no titan who had fallen; his whole career was one of understatement and subtlety, suggestive feelings that masked a powerful and turbulent music. In short, Hill was simply being himself.

Hill’s reputation rests on the string of five albums he recorded for Blue Note between November of 1963 and June of the following year. The run begins with the abstracted Latin and blues rhythms ofBlack Fire, featuring tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson. Hill plumbed even more rarefied territory with the next two dates, using two basses and no horns on Smoke Stack, and enlisting vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson and drummer Elvin Jones to flesh out the intricacies of Judgment!. His next outing was the sextet date Point of Departure,considered by many to be his definitive statement, followed by Andrew!, a quintet with Sun Ra tenor saxophonist John Gilmore. These records map out a complex musical geography, containing as they do all of Hill’s hallmarks: restless rhythmic weaves, layers of jagged melody that hover between the unbalanced and beautiful, dissonant clusters of harmony, and a commitment to an ever-shifting ensemble sound. But to stop at these five albums is to do Andrew Hill a great injustice, for he never stopped producing quality recordings of his transcendent music, his most recent album, Time Lines representing a crowning achievement of a long and full career.

One product of this overloaded focus on Hill’s first Blue Note run is that Hill’s career is often described in terms of his periodic “resurgences,” what many consider code for a lack of commercial success. The truth, however, is not so straightforward. Hill himself, in an interview with Downbeat in March of 2006, says, “I’ve always lived comfortably playing this music. People have always supported me, so I don’t want to compartmentalize any praise of my music.” This comfort meant a series of teaching positions, one in the early 70s at Colgate University, and another in the 90s at Portland State. The support came from small labels like Freedom, East Wind, Inner City and Steeplechase, and also from the Smithsonian Institute, a sponsor of Hill’s performances in public schools and prisons. Hill built his career away from the mainstream of jazz, a career path that provided a living, but one that also kept him a marginal figure.

Hill’s music has also faced the same difficulty, existing as it does in a dimension that resists categorization. It’s full of enough energy and dissonance to get camped with the avant-garde, but its echoes of tradition—bebop, the blues, stride piano, Caribbean pulses—lead some to call him post-bop. He offered no more precise description than “jazz, with a feeling,” and lovingly remembered the time he spent in his hometown of Chicago, playing the accordion on street corners, backing Charlie Parker and Miles Davis when they came to town, studying with the composer Paul Hindemtih and learning blues phrases from future Ra sideman Pat Patrick. He also spoke with reverence of pianists Art Tatum, Earl Hines, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk.

And yet, Hill’s music really sounds nothing like those piano masters. It can be cerebral, comic, brooding, grooving--sometimes all at once. Perhaps his greatest achievement was the true leveling of voices he brought to his ensembles. Sure, players like John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman freed up each individual player, but Hill managed to liberate the entire ensemble at the same that he united it. Listen to Smoke Stack to hear how the two basses become front line instruments at the same that they create a churning, rumbling undercurrent. On “15/8”, from Dusk (Palmetto 2000), his sextet rips through the complex meter of the title, the challenge of the time signature serving to unify the voices. In an interview with the New York Times’ Ben Ratliff, Hill traced the origin of his music to a comment made by Charlie Parker. “I look at melody as rhythm,” Hill remembered Parker saying, going on to call what he does in his own music as “crossing rhythms.”

Such terse analysis is as close as Hill ever got to declaring a grand concept for his music. He preferred to keep moving, to keep crafting his own sound, adding to it (see the large ensemble recordings of Passing Ships and A Beautiful Day), subtracting from it (see his handful solo piano and trio recordings),or recasting it (see his experiments with voices, on Lift Every Voice ,and with strings, Mosaic Select 16). Perhaps the best comparison for Hill might be the composer György Ligeti. Ligeti was also a singular voice in the wilds of modern music, one who never stopped tinkering with and advancing his sound, one who refused to be herded into a school or coerced into laying out his concept. Perhaps this restlessness is why Hill didn’t overwhelm me in his live performance. His music is not about virtuosity or immediate impact, his aura is not immediately apparent. But it’s there, and it is not the stuff of legend, but of legacy, and Andrew Hill has left us a legacy full of challenge, mystery and depth, a legacy not for admiring, but for exploring.

By Matthew Wuethrich

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