Strata Various

A pianist who's resisted categories for 40 years goes home again

Once I started feeling better, I wished I could blame dehydration from my stomach bug for the notes I took while first listening to Andrew Hill's Time Lines a few weekends ago. But my notes made sense enough; my despair was with my flailing adjectives and metaphors—as futile as all the other critics who have tried to elucidate the inner workings of Hill's compositions and piano solos over the last 40 years, beginning with his 1963 Blue Note debut, Black Fire. Hill's lure is that he strikes the ear as somehow both conventional and a little odd. Conventional because he clings to bebop's theme-and-solos format and because, except for a 1969 session involving strings, and another from the same year with voices, his small-group recordings have always adhered to the standard horns-plus-rhythm instrumentation—Time Lines, for instance, introduces his new working band, the quintet he had at Birdland last week, featuring Charles Tolliver on trumpet, Greg Tardy on reeds, John Hebert on bass, and Eric McPherson on drums. And odd because of those inner workings—harmonies and rhythms so complex in relation to one another as to require more analytical precision than I can muster even in my right mind. So after a publicist supplied a finished copy, I passed along my advance to my friend E., a former George Crumb student who recognized the gesture as a cry for help and shared his thoughts with me in a series of e-mails.

The first thing E. noticed was what everybody does with Hill: three different tempos at once—three "strata," to use E.'s terminology—on nearly every piece, with drums moving faster than either piano and bass or horns, including during the solos. This device has never been unique to Hill, though "Wailing Wail," from Smoke Stack—digitally remastered by Rudy Van Gelder, the original engineer, and reissued last month in Blue Note's RVG series—shows him already employing it in 1963, with Richard Davis's arco bass in lieu of a horn. It was a characteristic of Miles Davis's '60s quintet with Tony Williams, and Ornette Coleman did something similar, minus piano, on "Lonely Woman" in 1959. But Hill exploits the rhythmic tension generated by this suggestion of ambiguity so deftly that not even E. could always say whether he was hearing unusual time signatures and regular departures from standard songform or if it just sounded that way.

Where E.'s perceptions helped crystallize mine, before he lost me with talk of false relationships and tetrachords, was in terms of harmony. Tempo isn't the only thing Hill doesn't nail down. To paraphrase E., the harmonies are destabilized too, meaning unresolved and never wholly major or minor. Hill the composer and Hill the pianist are one entity. He incorporates uncertainty about the actual tempo, along with broken rhythms and verbatim snatches of the contrapuntal theme, into his solo on the first of Time Lines' two versions of a piece called "Ry Round," and his tuned-in sidemen frequently emulate this typical ploy of his—most suspensefully when McPherson juxtaposes conflicting tempos on his bass drum and cymbals in his solo on the second, more headlong version. But even more than the thematic underpinnings of the solos, what makes a composition like the restless "Malachi" feel all of a piece is correspondence between the tempo games and what's going on harmonically. (Thanks, E., even if you don't agree that the one thing is necessarily related to the other.)

Three tempos at once
photo: Jimmy Katz
Three tempos at once

Time Lines marks Hill's second reunion with Blue Note, for whom he recorded prolifically until 1970 and added a pair of albums in '89 and '90. Though the renewed affiliation is assumed to be mutually beneficial, bringing Hill greater visibility while putting Blue Note back in touch with its fabled history, the excellence of Hill's two Palmetto CDs of a few years ago, coupled with a never ending stream of reissues and Mosaic Selects, makes you wonder if the label needs Hill more than he needs it. Hearing a similarity with Thelonious Monk, Blue Note co-founder Alfred Lion titled a track from the 1964 LP Point of Departure "New Monastery." The resemblance is there on Smoke Stack if you listen for it, but I think even then it must have been less a matter of style than of Hill being a fellow maverick—as coincidental to his era's zeitgeist as Monk was to bop. What put Hill at odds with free jazz was his emphasis on composition and harmonic complexity at a time when even John Coltrane was stripping down to a few chords. Blue Note's '60s roster at one point or another included figures who could be loosely classified as conservative (Kenny Dorham, Booker Ervin), moderate (Lee Morgan, Joe Henderson), or radical (Eric Dolphy, Sam Rivers) in their relationship to free jazz. Though Hill recorded with members of all three wings, they advanced to his orders.

Hill's 1989 return to Blue Note had little impact; what figures to make a difference this time is that young pianists like Jason Moran and Vijay Iyer have pointed to him as a model, putting his name out there again. Hill himself hasn't changed at all: Time Linescould be the next release after Point of Departure—but that 40-year-old album remains startling. As always, Hill nudges his sidemen out of their comfort zones. Tardy has never sounded more committed than he does in his tenor solo on the title tune; he builds slowly, crooning and then braying, before climaxing by leaning on a repeated note from the melody and a walloping beat entirely of his own making. Tolliver evinces a Caruso-like lyricism that comes across as almost ironic in the slightly ominous settings of "Time Lines" and "Smooth," and alluding to the first tune during his solo on the second demonstrates genuine insight. Scattered throughout are elongated rhythms, sideways harmonies, and bass vamps whose gravity makes them seem more Spanish than Latin. But there I go again with the metaphors. Oh well. Maybe they're the way to go in the face of music that pulls you in with its secrets and holds you with its refusal to divulge them.

 
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