By Howard Reich
Tribune arts critic
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.