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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:

9. Andrew Hill: 'Faded Beauty' (A Beautiful Day; Palmetto, 2002)

9. Andrew Hill: 'Faded Beauty' (<i>A Beautiful Day</i>; Palmetto, 2002)

It took nearly 50 years before Hill finally committed his (always orchestral) compositions to tape with a big band. The 17-piece with the unlikely name of the Andrew Hill Sextet + 11 assayed the intricacies of his work no better than on “Faded Beauty.” The fluttery lines of John Savage’s flute give way to the melancholia of Marty Ehrlich’s bass clarinet, which in turn gives way to Hill. Gloriously, eternally Hill, finding luster and bittersweet hope even as his heavy touch bears down on the surreal distortions that have defined his music for so long. At the same time, his work with Nasheet Waits creates yet another new rhythmic avenue for Hill to travel before being subsumed by a beautifully post-classical ensemble.

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.