Hill Peaks

From 'Dusk' till dawn: Andrew Hill
Walker Art Center

If you ever found yourself on the corner of 47th Street and State in Chicago, let's say around 1943, you might have seen Andrew Hill. He was the tap-dancing six-year-old with the accordion. If you spoke to him, he probably didn't answer. A taciturn (dumb, they might have said) child, he found his voice on the piano, as if he were acting out the script of an inspiring Hollywood tearjerker about dreams, and pluck, and the power of music.

Listen to Hill play the piano--he'll be at the Walker on Saturday, December 7--and then hear him talk, and you'll know this story is true. He places strange, lovely block chords at odd intervals, like popcorn popping for that first 30 seconds. He plays runs in spasms--now ahead of the beat, now behind it, then dead on. He lets the music speak for him. So when I call his home in New Jersey, I smile the moment I hear his voice: He stutters and stammers, and then says something really eloquent. It's like I'm talking to one of his solos.

I've never seen Hill perform, and if you've been sticking close to home, you probably haven't either: He comes to Minneapolis about once every half-century. He was last here as a fresh-faced sideman for singer Dinah Washington. If his memory can be trusted, it was 1955, and he was only 18, but he already carried a loaded résumé. As a class-cutting teenager, he backed Charlie Parker, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, and Lester Young on some of their passes through Hill's native Chicago. He was even tutored by German composer Paul Hindemith, who spent a few days with him after reading sheet music of Hill's poorly notated but well-written juvenilia.

Through his admiration of mavericks such as Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell, Hill developed an expectation-bucking ethos that would later inform his work as a bandleader. "All these old great masters before me," says Hill, "would tell me how boring it was--no matter how great the music sounded--to work in these big bands where you played the same thing night after night." So when Hill started leading groups of his own, he made a resolution: Never bore the band.

He must have succeeded. His music--tuneful, but harmonically tricky and rhythmically protean--would require a band to be at least on orange alert. During the polemical '60s, Hill was a key if not widely heeded liaison between jazz's centrists and radicals. He captured the punch of hard bop but sidestepped its formulas, embraced the adventurousness of the avant-garde without becoming inscrutable. And he wasn't too snobby to play soul-jazz.

Hill's Point of Departure (Blue Note), a brainy, searching album featuring kindred spirit Eric Dolphy, has become a connoisseur's must-have but, like Hill's other albums, it was a commercial fizzle upon its release. Sluggish sales kept Hill from maintaining a working band in the '60s, but his label remained loyal and kept him busy as a sideman and writer. (Check out his contributions on both fronts to Bobby Hutcherson's Dialogue or the groovy blues he wrote for Lee Morgan, "The Rumproller.")

Today Hill is on another hip indie label, Palmetto, and decades of acclaim seem finally to be partnering with sold-out clubs. After a low-key '90s mainly spent teaching, Hill now gets enough live show offers to keep several bands afloat. At the Walker, he'll be joined by saxophonist Greg Tardy, bassist John Herbert, and drummer Nasheet Waits, but he has also been gigging with a sextet and the big band heard on his knotty new album, A Beautiful Day.

Though he remains a prolific writer with his head in the present, Hill occasionally revisits his earlier material, and the rejiggerings testify to his restless spirit. On 1986's Shades, the Monkish "Ball Square" plays like a wrap-up from the start, with Hill and drummer Ben Riley skittishly trading eights whenever a majestic 6/8-time bridge isn't cutting in. The tune is even more fitful on Hill's 2000 album, Dusk, where a three-piece horn section brightens the song's expanded melody, and the bridge--now played with grinding, New Orleans-style polyphony--is demoted to a single guest appearance. The later version is transformed by the normal tools of improvisation and reconfiguration, but more so by Hill's comprehensive design, his almost Ellingtonian blend of classical vision and jazz openness.

"Open" describes Hill's piano style nicely, both because his playing springs from an open mind and because it leaves so much unfilled space. "In your effort to become ambidextrous and virtuosic," says Hill in explaining his restrained approach, "you're all in the way....The music can't have any shape because there you are, blocking the progress and the harmonics of the music you're playing."

The synergistic sextet heard on Dusk is particularly good at furthering Hill's harmonic progress. The title track was inspired by the first section of Harlem Renaissance writer Jean Toomer's Cane. In that pithy collection of stories and poetry, Toomer paints portraits of rural Georgia and its black residents, gently wrought as tragedies played out in vespertine shadows. Appropriately, Hill's piece is gorgeous and mournful. A mantra-like bassline frames the piece, and alto saxophonist Marty Ehrlich's weeping solo enriches it. But mostly it's a showcase for Hill's gifts: his facility with unison lines and deep harmonies, his mutating tempos, and spacious playing. If Hill doesn't do "Dusk" at the Walker, demand an encore--and tell him we can't wait another 47 years.

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