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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:

5. Andrew Hill: 'Ghetto Lights' (Lift Every Voice; Blue Note, 1970)

5. Andrew Hill: 'Ghetto Lights' (<i>Lift Every Voice</i>; Blue Note, 1970)
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Originally recorded with Bobby Hutcherson on Dialogue, “Ghetto Lights”—as rearranged here for quintet and choir—sheds a fascinating light on Hill’s harmonic language. The thick clusters of notes that form his signature chords are difficult to parse in the homophony of the piano, but the voices are much more distinct when humans are singing them. It still takes work to decipher them, however, partly because Hill tends to place the voices behind solos such as his own or Carlos Garnett’s on tenor sax, and partly because his harmonies are just so different. While analyzing them, you can also enjoy then up-and-coming trumpeter Woody Shaw’s muted blues solo, which could be a compelling composition of its own.

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.