Friday, 1 June 2012

JAZZ ICONS #3: Andrew Hill


In listening to other people you absorb their thoughts, however unconsciously, and as I said, right now I have to concentrate on finding my own way.  If I were playing regularly, I could listen to records because I'd be able to find ways each night to apply what I hear in all kinds of different ways.  But since I'm not working regularly until I can get my own group going, I'm sort of forced into solitude.
from the liner notes for 
Point of Departure, 1964

Throughout his long career, Andrew Hill seemed to be the living embodiment of the hackneyed phrase 'ahead of his time.'  A composer of extraordinary gifts, not to mention a pianist of occasionally frightening virtuosity, he remains an enigmatic –– some might even say obscure –– figure in the history of modern jazz.  He was a victim, not of the alcoholism or drug addiction which compromised the talent and prematurely ended the lives of so many of his contemporaries, but of the fact that he was too original to be pigeonholed as easily as the critics and the jazz-buying public apparently needed their artists to be pigeonholed even at the height of the supposedly 'free' 1960s.

Verne (1963)
ANDREW HILL (piano); RICHARD DAVIS (bass #1);
EDDIE KHAN (bass #2); ROY HAYNES (drums)
Recorded 13 December 1963
From his second Blue Note LP Smokestack 
This tune was written for his wife, Laverne Gillette.  

Hill was born in Chicago on 30 June 1937 (not in Haiti as he mischievously informed some critics early on in his career) and at a young age was already singing, playing the accordion and tap-dancing in talent shows while supplementing his family's meager income by selling newspapers on the street.  Earl 'Fatha' Hines, the great pianist who cut several landmark sides with Louis Armstrong in the 1920s, allegedly heard him perform at one of these amateur events and encouraged him to take up the piano.  By the age of thirteen he was leading what he described as his own 'baby band,' copying the solos of Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and Art Tatum – pianists who would all go on to serve as major influences on his own inimitable playing style –– note for complex note.

Warwick Records, 1955
In 1950 he was introduced to classical composer Paul Hindemith, who informally tutored him in composition and harmony for the next two years.  In 1953 he played his first professional gig, doubling on piano and baritone saxophone in the rhythm and blues outfit led by saxophonist Paul Williams.  (Williams' biggest claim to fame was performing a song called The Hucklebuck which inspired its own shortlived dance craze at the end of the 1940s.)  Hill subsequently played in many Chicago bands and also in the pick-up bands put together by visiting 'name' musicians like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Coleman Hawkins and Detroit-based pianist Barry Harris.  In 1955 he recorded his first album as a leader, So In Love with the Sound of Andrew Hill, for the tiny independent Warwick label.  Copies of this LP, which featured an interesting mixture of standards and his own apprentice compositions, eventually became highly prized collector's items as only a few dozen were ever pressed before the company filed for bankruptcy.   

In 1961 Hill's trio was hired to be the backing band for singer Dinah Washington and soon moved to New York City with her.  For the next two years, using New York as his base, he worked as a sideman for a variety of musicians including saxophonists Johnny Griffin, Clifford Jordan, Roland Kirk and Jackie McLean, trumpeter Kenny Dorham and singers Al Hibbler and Johnny Hartman.  It was in 1962, while working with Roland Kirk in Los Angeles, that he met Laverne Gillette, house organist at a club called the Red Carpet.  In 1963 they married and Hill took her back to New York with him, where Alfred Lion, the founder of Blue Note records, soon offered him a recording contract.  (Lion once described Hill as 'his last great protégé.')  Hill's first album for the label, Black Fire, was recorded in November of that same year.

Pumpkin (1963)
ANDREW HILL (piano); JOE HENDERSON (tenor sax);
Recorded 8 November 1963
From his first Blue Note LP Black Fire  

It was only with the release of his fourth Blue Note album in 1964 – the groundbreaking Point of Departure that Hill began to make his mark as a composer of genius and striking individuality.  As Bob Blumenthal so aptly put it in his liner notes for the 1999 CD reissue of the album, it is 'even greater than the sum of its magnificent parts, because Hill prepared a program of music in which each composition both stood on its own and reinforced the larger statement.'  The music is dark, turbulent and haunting, driven by a formidable rhythm section and marked by astonishingly inventive solos, possessing an elegance of form and structure almost unknown in the free-form experiments which had come to dominate jazz by the mid-1960s.  Each of the six musicians who feature on the album, including future superstars Eric Dolphy and Tony Williams, seemed to find their own unique voices through their playing of Hill's matchless compositions, creating an album which is justifiably considered to be the pianist's masterpiece.

Dedication (1964)
ANDREW HILL (piano); KENNY DORHAM (trumpet);
ERIC DOLPHY (alto sax, flute); JOE HENDERSON (tenor sax);
Recorded 21 March 1964
From his fourth Blue Note LP Point of Departure

Hill continued to work for Blue Note until 1970, recording other classic LPs like Andrew!! (1964), Compulsion (1965) and Grass Roots (1968) in addition to the equally magnificent but unreleased Dance With Death (1968) and Passing Ships (1969) –– albums which inexplicably languished in the company's vaults, unheard, for close to thirty years.  In 1970, either unable or unwilling to sign again with Blue Note, he accepted a post as Composer in Residence at Colgate University, which led to him joining a jazz performance program sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution.  This allowed him to take the music into parts of America –– rural areas, prisons, small culturally isolated towns –– which had rarely if ever been exposed to it before.  'I'm trying to make music a sensual expression,' he said, 'not an academic experiment.'    

During this period, which ended with him taking his now terminally-ill wife to live in the small town of Pittsburg in northern California, he also found time to become an associate professor of music at Portland State University, play the occasional gig in both the United States and Europe, and record brand new group and solo albums for the independent Freedom, Steeplechase and East Wind labels respectively.  He also traveled to Berkeley to record close to three hours' worth of new solo piano music, some of which was issued by the soon-to-be-defunct Artists House label in 1978.  These recordings show his music moving in a quieter but by no means less adventurous or insistently compelling direction.  (They were subsequently reissued by Mosaic Select as Andrew Hill-Solo in 2006 and rank among the greatest and most moving work of his career.)

East 19th Street (2004)
ANDREW HILL (solo piano) 
The original version of this track appeared  
on the 1975 East Wind LP, Hommage 

Following his wife's death in 1989, Hill returned to New York where it seemed that a long overdue reappraisal of his work was about to begin.  The last eighteen years of his life were probably his busiest, with many new albums of new and sometimes revisited material being released on a variety of labels both locally and internationally.  In 2005 he re-signed with Blue Note, which released his final album, Time Lines, the following yearHe performed for the last time at Trinity Church in New York a month before his death in April 2007.  He was survived by his second wife Joanne Robinson Hill, a dancer and fellow music educator whom he married in 1992.  

The last word on Andrew Hill should rightfully belong to his friend Michael Cuscuna, the producer and jazz historian who compiled and wrote the liner notes for Mosaic's reissue of his complete 1960s Blue Note output:
although [Hill's] music had melody, harmony, and rhythm, his conception of each was so unique that he was categorized with the avant-garde.  This music was avant-garde in the strictest sense, but it was anything but free form.  As Monk was lumped into the bebop movement because he was there, so was Andrew put into the freedom bag.  His music was free of cliché, but that was about the extent of it.

Click HERE to visit the official ANDREW HILL website where you can read more about his legacy and hear more free samples of his music.  You can also click HERE to read an interview he gave to the website All About Jazz to promote his final album Time Lines in February 2006.  

Special thanks to everyone who takes the time to upload music to YouTube.  Your efforts are appreciated by music lovers everywhere.

ANDREW HILL, c. 2002

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