Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

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:

7. Andrew Hill Trio: 'Reunion' (Strange Serenade; Soul Note, 1980)

7. Andrew Hill Trio: 'Reunion' (<i>Strange Serenade</i>; Soul Note, 1980)

Like his solo albums, Hill’s sporadic 1970s output was hit-and-miss. (Lift Every Voice and Spiral, a 1974 session with Lee Konitz, were the standouts.) When the trio date Strange Serenade hit in the fall of 1980, it was immediately recognized as Hill’s strongest work in years. While “Reunion” starts out with delicacy and tenderness, it doesn’t stay there long: Hill, bassist Alan Silva, and drummer Freddie Waits all conspire to push each other into fittingly strange territory. Silva is particularly flexible with his chord changes, though Hill is the one with the interior daredevilry: phrases that break in the middle, clattering rhythms and odd twists and turns in his playing. It’s both unfair and impossible to discuss “solos” here; everything is essentially collective improvisation. It just happens to swing beautifully at the same time.

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.