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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:

8. Andrew Hill: '15/8' (Dusk; Palmetto, 2000)

8. Andrew Hill: '15/8' (<i>Dusk</i>; Palmetto, 2000)

If Strange Serenade was hailed as a return to form, Dusk was all but put on an altar. Hill used the same orchestration as he had 35 years earlier on Point of Departure, resulting in perhaps his most acclaimed recording since that classic. But he used a much softer touch with it: careful watercolors rather than bold acrylics. Even on “15/8,” the album’s most frenetic, adrenalized tune, the payload is lightened; the horns (altoist Marty Ehrlich, tenorist Greg Tardy, trumpeter Ron Horton) are at some distance from the microphone, while bassist Scott Colley and drummer Billy Drummond seem right up on it but still take a milder attack. Nevertheless, the melody is as abstruse, complex, and irresistible as ever, and distance or no distance, the musicians let loose in the solos. Hill leads the charge, playing an improvised chiaroscuro as stark as that in the drawing of him on the cover.

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.