By Kevin Whitehead
"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.