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The pianist Andrew Hill, who died of lung cancer on April 20, was born in 1931, not 1937, as was frequently reported, and in Chicago, not in Haiti, like he used to tell reporters and liner-note writers. Never as willfully enigmatic as Thelonious
Monk or as alienating (to some ears) as Cecil Taylor, Hill was an integral member of Blue Note Records’ mid-’60s class of “in ‘n’ out” players—musicians equally comfortable with freedom, complexity, and the deceptively simple joys of hard bop. His compositions were frequently tricky, almost to the point of dissonance, but “Pumpkin,” “Refuge,” “Black Fire,” and many more have melodies and a swinging energy that’s impossible to shake loose once you hear them.
Hill got a late start, taking up the piano at 13 and making his debut as a leader with 1959’s So in Love, a trio session on the Warwick label featuring fellow Chicagoan Malachi Favors on bass. He took few sideman gigs (most notably backing Rahsaan Roland Kirk), preferring to concentrate on his own compositions. He signed with Blue Note in 1963 and recorded four albums in five months: Joe Henderson’s Our Thing, Hank Mobley’s No Room for Squares, and his own Black Fire (with Henderson as a sideman) and Smoke Stack, which added a second bassist to a piano trio.
Still, he wasn’t an ascetic by any means—he could get down ‘n’ dirty when the mood struck. Hill wrote, but didn’t play on, “The Rumproller,” Lee Morgan’s follow-up to the hit “The Sidewinder,” at the same time that he was backing avant-gardists Sam Rivers and Bobby Hutcherson on the latter’s
Dialogue and wresting saxophonist John Gilmore free of Sun Ra’s Arkestra for Hill’s own
Compulsion (re- issued March 20) and Andrew!!!.
Like some other forward-thinking jazz players, Hill found his way into academia as the ’60s ended. From 1970 to 1972 he was a composer in residence at Colgate University, where he received a doctorate. He taught at Portland State University, at NYU, and in public schools and prisons in California. He recorded for the short-lived Arista/Freedom label and, later, Black Saint/Soul Note. And in 1989, he returned to Blue Note for two albums, Eternal Spirit and But Not Farewell, both featuring then-up-and-coming alto saxophonist Greg Osby and, in the younger man’s view, offering Hill the chance to apply his teaching experiences to the studio.
“Before I met Andrew, although I knew his music well, I hadn’t figured upon a realistic or applicable means of integrating my thoughts, studies, and creative aspirations into a composite and personal approach to music,” recalls Osby via e-mail. “In many ways, I was a wandering student in search of the elusive and indescribable mentor. Andrew sensed this and took it upon himself to advise me. His unselfish counsel, candor, and generosity provided me with solutions to many unanswerable questions.” In 2000, the pair reunited on Osby’s The Invisible Hand, a contemplative album with the feel of post-bop chamber music.
Hill was riding a new wave of appreciation in recent years, scooping up
numerous prizes and awards. Jason Moran, possibly the best young pianist in
mainstream jazz, co-wrote “Aubade” with Hill and recorded it on his 2005 album
Same Mother. Earlier this year, guitarist Nels Cline released New Monastery, an entire album of Hill interpretations.
Last year, Hill returned to Blue Note again, releasing Time Lines, which had the feel of a farewell, the closing of a loop. It opened and closed with two versions—one with a full band, and one solo—of “Malachi,” a tune dedicated to the late bassist who’d anchored So in Love. His 1960s albums were being remastered and reissued, and Mosaic Records, the label specializing in boxed sets aimed at connoisseurs, compiled a three-CD set of previously unreleased sessions from 1967–70.
On March 29, Hill played his final concert, a lunchtime trio date at Trinity Church which, like an idiot, I missed.
Andrew Hill’s last concert is available online, though, through a search at trinitywallstreet.org