The last music I heard at the SFJazz Festival 2000 was strains of Andrew Hill's Dusk sextet, to which I've committed myself in print several times this year and which continues to move me on each hearing. Both on record (Palmetto) and in performances, the haunting music Hill's written has the deep and wide range of hues of the sky at twilight, with stellar interpretations by Marty Ehrlich, passionate and careful on alto sax and bass clarinet, Ron Horton on probing trumpet, Aaron Stewart unleashing tenor sax vigor (following the album's Greg Tardy), very solid and deep-pulsing bassist Scott Coley, most interesting young drummer Nasheet Waits (in the chair established by Billy Drummond). Hill's own pianism is understated yet provocative, dryly witty and curious, unafraid of complexity, complications or contrariness but unaffectedly direct; he works in parrallel to his ensemble, drawing one'se ears (when we can hear him -- at Yerba Buena theater he might have been set up so his keyboard could be seen and the piano well open towards the audience) through the layers and folds of the arrangements. Beautiful and original sounds, a gift to the listener.
Hill builds chords like no one else.piano iconoclast Andrew Hill playing the Jazz Showcase, a club more typically devoted to vintage bebop.
If the sheer novelty of the booking helped draw an unusually large crowd for a Tuesday night show so dis Hill's stature as a jazz innovator. For during the course of more than 40 years, Hillwho was born and raised in Chicagohas forged an unconventional, instantly identifiable approach to the piano.
Like Thelonious Monk, a central inspiration, Hill has built an unorthodox approach to time. But if Monk typically danced around the beat, putting rhythmic accents in unexpected places, Hill more often than not virtually ignores the meter is sidemen have established. This disconnect between piano and the rest of the band gives Hill's keyboard statements an extraordinary sense of freedom, his phrases seemingly floating above the ensemble sound.
Yet there's nothing arbitrary or capricious about Hill's playing. He's simply improvising to his own time signature, while the rest of the instrumentalists cling to theirs.
The other fascinating aspect of Hill's pianism is its exotic harmonic makeup, for Hill builds chords like no one else. His essentially a "vertical" approach to keyboard harmony, the pianist generally stacking one chord cluster atop another. In this regard, too, Hill takes a page from Monk but goes well beyond that precedent, using dissonance not simply for its pungent effects but as the very basis of every "chord" he plays.
The musicians Hill brought with him worked hard for their leaderperhaps a bit too hard. Granted, there was no resisiting the post-Coltrane fervor of tenor saxophonist Greg Tardy (who has matured significantly in the decade...) the rhythmic dexterity of bassist Scott Colley and drummer Nasheet Waits.
Together, however, these accomplished artists sometimes obscured Hill's work. In trying to do as much of the evening's heavy lifting as they could, thereby liberating Hill to play only as much or as little as he wished, the band may have undercut the pianist's impact.
Even so, one had to marvel at the nimble interaction between Colley and Waits, as well as the ingenuity of Tardy's elliptical, angular phrasemaking.
When the band cut the decibel level, the inventiveness and creativity of Hill's pianism became unmistakably clear. Somehow, Hill played with utter rhythmic freedom whenever his hands touched the keyboard, yet he managed to arrived at key pitches and other structural turning points precisely when his colleagues did.
This singular approach to the piano (and to ensemble playing) has won Hill admiration from his peers but nary a fraction of the wider recognition he deserves.
His week long engagement at the Showcase, in his hometown, should serve to remind Chicagoans of the importance of his work.
In a jazz world that often celebrates imitators, Hill stands as a bona fide original.
"Chicago-born pianist Andrew Hill and a trio of collaborators perform pieces that are catchy but offbeat at the Jazz Showcase"
In jazz, fans of tuneful, cooking combos and of the raucous avant-garde rarely have the same heros, but Andrew Hill's appeal is big enough for both. His best pieces are so catchy you could hum them hours after you hear themand you'd want tobut they're full of odd turns. He'll throw one extra beat into a rolling rhythm to throw it off balance, or write phrases five or nine bars long instead of the usual four or eight.
Since the '60s, when he made a series of ambitious LPs for Blue Note, the Chicago-born pianist's offbeat forms have made him sound familiar and disorienting at the same time. It's as if you asked a stranger for the time, and he showed you Dali's melted watch.
Hill's compositions can trip up unwary musicians, but the trio of younger collaborators who join him at the Jazz Showcase this week know the drill, having played with him in other combinations. They mind all the details, and still play the heck out his stuff, with high energy more out of free jazz than Blue Note hard-bop.
From the kickoff number1963's "Cantarnos"drummer Nasheet Waits was a fiery marvel. His playing illustrates how African and Latin percussion ensembles inform one-man-band jazz drummers. On that opener, he kept up a swing pattern on cymbal, a Latin figure on snare drum, and a military tattoo on bass drum: three interlocking layers. Together, he and hard-thumping bassist John Hebert fine-tune their support from moment to moment. They'll break up the time to let piano poke through the holes, or roll along at a steady clip, or rise up like a wave to sweep everyone along.
Tenor saxophonist Greg Tardy digs into the fierce numbers like a bulldog with a T-bone; he'll grab one note, or a short or long phrase, and chew it over a few timessomething he does better maybe a bit too much. He fares better when the band calms down for a wistful, snaking ballad like "Nicodemus," or fetching sing-song number like "But Nit Farewell," with its oft-repeated melodic hook. Such tunes really show off his attractive tone, muscular but not muscle-bound.
The quieter numbers bring out Hill's best, too. His solos are playfully discontinuous, a little like Thelonious Monk's. Like Monk, he's fond of hammered chords that tug against the beat, cryptic little runs that break up as soon as they start, and cat-on-the-keys splink-splanks. But where Monk's sound was dry and terse Hill loves to make the strings ring out loud and long.
Most pianists who lean on the sustain pedal muddy up their sound. Hill uses it more sparingly, to give his tolling chords an eerie come-and-go glow, like a neon sign seen through a fog. That fits the whole band's approach: as they knock the music around, the handsome tunes and infectious beats slide in and out of focus right before your ears. Nothing else in jazz sounds quite like this. You should hear it for yourself.
"We don't have any idea what's going to happen tonight," one trumpeter said moments before taking the stage. "Not a clue."
This was opening night of a three-night stand (Jan 24-26) at New York's Birdland for the newly minted Andrew Hill Sextet + 11, and given the ensemble's inexperience and unwieldy sizeand the extraordinary demands of the musicthis comment could have been cause for some alarm. It evoked thoughts of Charles Mingus' haphazard enterprise at Town Hall 40 years ago. Like Mingus, Hill is an innovator whose music inhabits the future yet reflects intimate knowledge of the past. Like Mingus, who built his enormous Town Hall orchestra around a nucleus of frequent collaborators, Hill has assembled this big band by augmenting an existing group. Like Mingus, Hill is subjecting these musicians not only to difficult compositional structures but also to unorthodox methods of notation, conduction and interpretation. And just as United Artists captured Mingus' sprawling experiment for posterity, these first-time performances are being recorded for a forth-coming Palmetto release.
But that's where the comparison ends. Hill's vision is singular, and his music demands to be addressed, and heard, on its own terms. This truth became self-evident moments into the evening's first tune, the epic "Divine Revelation." After a brass fanfare, the saxophone section rendered the song's expressive melodyin unison at first, then in a staggered repetition that suggested the concentric ripples on a pond. This led, in turn to a series of solosby tenor saxophonists Greg Tardy and Aaron Stewart, the Hill on pianointerspersed with unusual background figures (bleats, hiccups, sirens, smears) played by trumpets and trombones. Then came a reprise by the saxes and a quiet coda scored for tuba and upright bass. It was a brilliant opener, showcasing the group's vast dynamic range, elasticity and depth.
The rest of the evening fulfilled this early promise in all sorts of elliptical ways. "A Beautiful Day" wafted between waltz and common time, with room in between for free-form exploration. "Faded Beauty, Part 1" began ethereally, then led to an intricate head scored for two flutes, clarinet, bass clarinet and tenor saxophone. And "Bellezza Apposita #4" peppered its driving ensemble passages with brass exclamations and cacophonous group soloing among the reeds.
As is often the case in Hill's oeuvre, this group borrowed from existing conventions; at times it sounded almost like a standard-issue big band. But the repertoire, penned entirely by Hill, reflected the atmosphere of a distinctive compositional world. And every musician on stage, Hill included, entered that world without map or compass. During the set, trumpeter/conductor Ron Horton intermittently flashed a cue card with specific coordinates (e.g. "Beautiful Day, Insert Bar 18"), and the band quickly followed his instructions. Horton's choices, although not exactly arbitrary, seem dictated less by a pre-existing order than by the impulse of the music itself. the result was a cut-and-paste approach that kept the musicians on their toes, liberated the music from the page and allowed each arrangement to reside in perpetual present tense.
Another by-product of this method was a profound emphasis on musicianship within the group. The ensemble often pared down to smaller units (quartet, trio, duo, solo), with only the slightest shift of gears. On opening night, this process yielded some of the strongest moments; Horton delivered an especially lyrical essay backed by bassist Scott Colley and drummer Nasheet Waits. The final night of the engagement proved even more exceptional, with impressive solo work by trumpeter Dave Ballou (on a freeform section of "5 Mo"), reedist Marty Ehrlich (bass clarinet on the same tune), baritone saxophonist J.D. Parran (unaccompanied on "Bellezza Apposita #3") and flutist Jon savage (on a gorgeous intro to "Faded Beauty, Part 1").
The band showed remarkable evolution over its three-day residence. By Saturday night, notated sections were tighter and more definitive. Transitions were smoother. Even the solos seemed less tentative. And Hill, who had been a somewhat spectral presence on opening night, played a greater rolenot only as a soloists, but also via his subtly coercive comping. One can only hope that this group continues to evolve through more extended runs.
Andrew Hill has made a career of confounding expectations and intermingling styles, inventing his own in the process. His adamant refusal to be pigeonholed- bop, hard bop, avant-garde- has been a model for scores of younger musicians, and he continues to find bandmates who are open-eared enough to share his quirky vision.
For his Palmetto debut, Hill has assembled a thorny horn section with strong individual voices. Their unison movements, which abound in Hill's arrangements bristle with energy, especially when underscored by the composer's characteristically shifting time signatures. On the tumultuous "15/8," Hill puts his front line through some rigorous paces. After bassist Scott Colley- who sounds throughout like he was born to play Hill's music- sets up a blistering tempo and the pianist sketches the melody, the horns charge in, providing a bustling backdrop for Hill's solo. A unison passage sets the stage for a scurrying clarinet solo by Marty Ehrlich and an invigorating chase section. Trumpeter Ron horton engages Colley and drummer Billy Drummond in a brisk conversation, which quickly gives way to another squawling horn chorus and then- the climax- a Trane/Ali-style dialogue that culminates in some corrosive roaring by Greg Tardy's tenor. Colley and Drummond restore order, and the horns take it out with a reprise of the theme. Whew!
Writing like that makes it seem impossible that Hill's glory years are 35 years in the past, and playing of that order makes it clear that he can still inspire sidemen to step up a couple of notches. Not all of the ensemble pieces reach the heights of "15/8," though there is a beautiful cantorial sax solo by Ehrlich on "Sept" and some delightfully meandering work by the rhythm section on the title track.
Hill includes two brief solo performances: "Tough Love," a shimmering meditation filled with sustained notes, and the closing "Focus," which stands as a textbook example of his truly original approach to the keyboard. Snippets of melody slide past like fragments of a half-remembered dream, thin block chords create odd punctuation, and the composition resolves unexpectedly but perfectly.
Welcome to andrew Hill's world- always an interesting place to visit.
Track listing: Dusk; ML; Ball Square; Tough Love; Sept; TC; 15/8; Focus. (58:54)
personnel: Andrew Hill, piano; Ron horton, trumpet; Marty Ehrlich, clarinet, saxophone; Greg Tardy, saxophone; Scott Colley, bass; Billy Drummond, drums.