Andrew Hill : uniquely gifted composer, pianist and educator

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Whenever the thumbnail sketch of the 1960s American jazz avant-garde is drawn, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor or Sun Ra appear in the foreground – and even a half-dozen other faces might materialize before that of Andrew Hill, who died at age 75 of lung cancer on this date in 2007. A uniquely gifted composer, pianist and educator, his status remained largely inside knowledge in the jazz world for most of his career.

Andrew Hill was born in Chicago, Illinois (not Port-au-Prince, Haiti, as was reported by many earlier jazz reference books), to William and Hattie Hille. He had a brother, Robert, who was a singer and classical violin player. Hill took up the piano at the age of thirteen, and was encouraged by Earl Hines. As a child, he attended the University of Chicago Experimental School.

Andrew Hill was a prolific and enigmatic pianist and composer whose music has proved to be unfailingly unique, sensual, magical, and ever changing. His influence on succeeding generations of jazz musicians and composers is strongly felt – even at his most elliptical and puzzling, he was a communicator of the highest order. Andrew’s methods of playing and composing were concentrated on being in the present; he didn’t care for living in the past, or “retrospectively”, as he would say.

Upon moving to New York in 1961, Hill performed with Rahsaan Roland Kirk before being contracted as a leader by Alfred Lyons, the founder of Blue Note Records who proclaimed Hill his “last great protegeˆ” at the 1986 Mount Fuji Festival celebrating Blue Note’s legacy. Hill’s Blue Note sessions from November, 1963 through March ’66 were released as the albums Black Fire, Smokestack, Judgement, Point of Departure, Andrew!, Compulsion, One For One and Involution and are compiled in the seven-CD boxed set The Complete Blue Note Andrew Hill Sessions (1963-66) on Mosaic Records. Hill returned to Blue Note in 1989 and ’90 to record Eternal Spirit and But Not Farewell, both of which featured saxophonist Greg Osby, and again late in ’99 as a guest on Osby’s album The Invisible Hand. He also released albums on the Arista-Freedom and Black Saint/Soul Note labels during the ’70s and ’80s, but spent most of those years (until the death of his wife Laverne in 1989) on the West Coast, offering solo concerts, classes and workshops in prisons, social service and academic settings, also playing occasionally at international fests.

MI0001473809Hill’s complex compositions straddled many lines in the early to mid-1960s and crossed over many.  Point of Departure, with its all-star lineup (even then), took jazz and wrote a new book on it, excluding nothing. With Eric Dolphy and Joe Henderson on saxophones (Dolphy also played clarinet, bass clarinet, and flute), Richard Davis on bass, Tony Williams on drums, and Kenny Dorham on trumpet, this was a cast created for a jazz fire dance. From the opening moments of “Refuge,” with its complex minor mode intro that moves headlong via Hill’s large, open chords that flat sevenths, ninths, and even 11ths in their striding to move through the mode, into a wellspring of angular hard bop and minor-key blues. Hill’s solo is first and it cooks along in the upper middle register, almost all right hand ministrations, creating with his left a virtual counterpoint for Davis and a skittering wash of notes for Williams. The horn solos in are all from the hard bop book, but Dolphy cuts his close to the bone with an edgy tone.

This disc is full of moments like this. In Hill‘s compositional world, everything is up for grabs. It just has to be taken a piece at a time, and not by leaving your fingerprints all over everything. In “Dedication,” where he takes the piano solo further out melodically than on the rest of the album combined, he does so gradually. You cannot remember his starting point, only that there has been a transformation. This is a stellar date, essential for any representative jazz collection, and a record that, in the 21st century, still points the way to the future for jazz.

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