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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:

2. Andrew Hill: 'Smoke Stack' (Smoke Stack; Blue Note, 1966 [originally recorded December 13, 1963])

2. Andrew Hill: 'Smoke Stack' (<i>Smoke Stack</i>; Blue Note, 1966 [originally recorded December 13, 1963])
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Hardly a conventional quartet, Hill’s Smoke Stack band features himself, Roy Haynes on drums, and two bassists: Richard Davis and Eddie Khan. The latter have two very different roles, however; Khan keeps time in the traditional sense, while Davis is a colorist, adding sometimes melodic, often highly percussive layers. To gauge the effect, look no further than Smoke Stack’s opening title track. It’s a mind-bending collage of polyrhythms, shifting tempos, and completely different thematic shapes, all of which only intensify when the improvisation starts. Even the aforementioned “traditional” bass player, Khan, is implying multiple rhythmic aspects with his fairly simple vamp, and Hill has a sleight of syncopated hand that rivals his sense for harmonic and melodic warpage.

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.