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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:

3. Bobby Hutcherson: 'Jasper' (Dialogue; Blue Note, 1965)

3. Bobby Hutcherson: 'Jasper' (<i>Dialogue</i>; Blue Note, 1965)

Vibist Hutcherson had appeared on two of Hill’s albums by the time of his own 1965 debut. When it finally came, the pianist acted as the session’s de facto copilot, writing three of its five tunes and setting the tone for its “out” trajectory. (Every other soloist sounds like he’s just taken a lesson from Hill.) A fourth Hill composition, “Jasper,” was a Dialogue outtake, issued 14 years later on Hutcherson’s 1979 LP Spiral. (Currently it’s a bonus track on the RVG remaster of Dialogue.) Leaving it unreleased that long seems a crime, as it contains what may be the most sublime moment in Hill’s recorded career. Not the exhausting sprint of a blues composition, impressive though that is; it comes near the end of his long, valedictory solo, which starts at 5:13 and is a dizzying masterpiece of deliberately clumpy dissonances and surreal salvos of melody. Then, at about the 7:00 mark, Hill begins a descent into even woozier territory—so bizarre, so completely strained from the expected harmonic language (what is that chord at 7:24?!) that at least one assumed that something was wrong with the tape and needed correcting. It’s not: You can hear Richard Davis’ bass continuing, undeterred, behind him. Yet the fact that Hill had reached a place where tape warp seemed like a more plausible explanation than deliberate intent … wow.

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.