April 2002, Volume 69 #4
By: Nate Chinen
Review of Andrew Hill Sextet + 11 at Birdland Jan 24-26 2002
"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.