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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:

4. Andrew Hill: 'Roots ’n’ Herbs' (Pax; Blue Note, 2006 [originally recorded February 10, 1965])

4. Andrew Hill: 'Roots ’n’ Herbs' (<i>Pax</i>; Blue Note, 2006 [originally recorded February 10, 1965])

While the Pax session was a quintet, “Roots ’n’ Herbs”—another outtake—included only the trio of Hill, bassist Richard Davis, and drummer Joe Chambers. It captures the pianist as an unlikely master of the developing soul-jazz genre (in Chicago he had passed through what he called “my Gene Harris period”; later that year he would write “The Rumproller” for Lee Morgan). You can hear it in the gospel-Motown groove with which the tune starts, the same groove that would sweep the charts on Ramsey Lewis’ “The In Crowd” in ’65. Yet into the handclap rhythm goes Hill’s piano deconstructions, his incantatory repetitions, his eccentric chords. The groove transmogrifies but never quite fades, allowing Hill to get as experimental and free as he might want but never to completely abandon the soul matrix. By the final 30 seconds he’s applying his surreal distortions to the kinds of hard-edged licks you might find on a Horace Silver record.

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.