Test of Time
Mosaic Select 16
Always one of the most mercurial figures in Blue Note’s vaunted late-’60s stable, pianist Andrew Hill was also one of the most extensively documented. Unfortunately, much of his work for the label has been released in fits and starts. But since Michael Cuscuna got involved with the label in the mid-’70s he’s unearthed four great sessions over nearly three decades. Finally, however, this three-CD box in Mosaic’s Select series empties the Blue Note vaults of the final gems from Hill’s stay at the label; unlike many of the other titles in the Mosaic series, nearly everything in this set is previously unreleased.
For many years Hill has been reticent to issue this material because he felt at the time he wasn’t able to put together bands fully able to invest the time into his challenging compositions. While there are clearly missteps once in a while, and some of the performances are hindered by some tentativeness, there’s too much superb music here to keep these recordings under wraps.
Most of the material was cut in 1967, and the sheer stylistic range of the work recorded that year testifies to Hill’s restless creative drive. There’s a double quartet session with a string quartet, shadowing and delivering exquisite counterpoint to the loose grooves delivered by Hill, reedist Bennie Maupin, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Mickey Roker—some of this material was issued on a vinyl-only release in the ’70s—as well as a wild but not entirely successful trio session with Carter and drummer Teddy Robinson, where the leader’s idiosyncratic, post-Monk improvisations crackle with diffuse harmonies, jagged rhythms and sweet-sour melody. While interesting, a few tunes on which Hill alternates between piano, organ and soprano saxophone ultimately crumble under the weight of his multi-instrumental ambitions.
A pair of sextet sessions from the same year finds the pianist veering off into freer territory with an excellent support cast that includes saxophonists Sam Rivers and Robin Kenyatta and trumpeter Woody Shaw. It’s on these pieces that Hill’s frustration with the performances makes sense: They sound terrific, but the density of the composer’s ideas and the complexity of his arrangements clearly required ample rehearsal time, and it appears that the groups stumbled on some of the ensemble passages. But that’s clearly not the case when the various individuals solo, making hay of Hill’s tricky harmonic springboards.
The string quartet returns on some tracks from 1969, recorded with saxophonist Carlos Garnett, bassist Richard Davis and drummer Freddie Waits, but here it gets more involved, laying down sporadic harmonic stabs that enliven and expand the work of each soloist. Finally, there’s a wonderful darkness to two sextet sessions from 1970 with a frontline comprised of Maupin, trumpeter Charles Tolliver and long-time Sun Ra mainstay Pat Patrick on reeds. These tunes brilliantly showcase Hill’s rigorous compositional logic, the way he masterfully tweaks and juggles each performance to get the most of out of his soloists, while keeping his compositions equally packed with ideas and movement.
By the time Hill recorded the solo album Hommage in 1975 for the Japanese East Wind imprint he’d dropped out of the New York scene and was primarily giving recitals around the country. His compositions are just as knotty and compelling as ever, but his energy exhibits wide swings, from Cecil Taylor-kissed density and a subdued, almost funereal tone that lurked around those Blue Note dates but was ultimately denied by the various rhythm sections.
Two years later he recorded Nefertiti with Richard Davis and drummer Roger Blank, but despite their presence it’s another deeply meditative session, marked by elegant, slow-moving ruminations and appealingly thick harmonic jags. While these mid-’70s dates lack the energy and adventurous arrangements of the Blue Note material, Hill, even at his most introspective, remains one of jazz’s most overlooked visionaries. Test of Time is a good label for these albums to reappear on; they’ve clearly passed.