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JazzTimes 10: Essential Andrew Hill Recordings

An introduction to a true original

You are reading the words of an Andrew Hill fanatic. The kind who has spent years poring over his music, track by track. And why not? Hill is a singular figure in jazz with a singular vision. Just as Art Tatum (apocryphally) learned to play via a player-piano roll he didn’t know was made by four hands, Hill sounds like he learned to play along with Bud Powell records that he didn’t know were warped.

“Warped” sounds pejorative. It’s not: It’s simply the best descriptor available for what Hill does with the conventions of bebop language. He takes the innovations of Herbie Nichols and—especially—Thelonious Monk yet further. It wasn’t an artistic path that anyone expected from a blues- and bebop-soaked pianist from Chicago’s South Side … but then there’d be little point to jazz if it conformed to expectation.

In addition to his distinctive pianistics, Hill was also a composer of renown, one who worked to break through jazz’s established formal conventions just as he did its harmonic ones. In the process, he incorporated a remarkable amount of contemporary classical thought (Hill studied with Hindemith) into the garden of the 1960s “New Thing”—and well beyond. The 10 tracks below aren’t enough to cover all his dimensions, but they’re a great place to start.

Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring all the tracks in this JazzTimes 10:

10. The Andrew Hill Jazzpar Octet + 1: 'When Peace Comes' (The Day the World Stood Still; Stunt, 2003)

10. The Andrew Hill Jazzpar Octet + 1: 'When Peace Comes' (<i>The Day the World Stood Still</i>; Stunt, 2003)

Hill won the Jazzpar Prize—“the Nobel Prize of Jazz”—in 2003, for which he performed a series of concerts in Denmark with a group of Danish musicians (as well as his core trio, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Nasheet Waits). Interestingly, the pieces—all new work—to a great extent let the five horns in the ensemble do the heavy lifting. For the somber yet hopeful “When Peace Comes,” however, the piano takes center stage again. Its long solo passage builds up to a trio simmer (interpolated by theme statements from saxophonists Thomas Agergaard and Peter Fuglsang), which then percolates in a classic Hill improvisation. He builds up formations solely so he can implode them, puts formidable shapes around his horn men (trumpeter Staffan Svensson does the best work with them), and in general establishes that his fiercely independent vision has not been tamped down at all by age or malady. Indeed, Hill had already been diagnosed with the lung cancer that would take his life in April 2007.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.