Remembering Andrew Hill

By Fritz Byers

I saw the pianist Andrew Hill in performance only once. In the late 80s, pure luck put me in New York at the same time Andrew was scheduled to perform with a quartet. I knew his music only slightly at the time – only the 1964 recording Point of Departure had caught my attention more than in passing, and that was primarily because the multi-reed wizard Eric Dolphy and the tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson were on it. (The trumpeter Kenny Dorham also appears, but it would be a while before, with the help of Scott Potter and Tim Hagans, I would come to appreciate his playing well enough to spend time tracking his work down.)

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In my mind’s evocation of that night forty years ago, it’s snowing and I’m trudging all the way to the lower west side for the show. I haven’t been able to find online any vestige of this performance, so I’m sticking with that memory. More embarrassingly, I don’t remember whom Andrew played with. What I do remember is staying for both sets and hearing the band play Andrew’s composition, “New Monastery,” four times, twice in each set.  As I recall, the first version, which opened the set, was way up-tempo with a rhythmic propulsion and a syncopated piano-drum call-and-response interlude. The second version, toward the end of the first set, was a mid-tempo waltz that shifted all the accents of the melody, making it in effect an entirely new tune.

Interesting so far. Andrew then opened the second set with a third version, this one with a samba feel – whoever was at the drum kit held the whole thing together while Andrew played a Latin-tinged solo that caused some in the crowd to whoop and others to sink into reverent silence. Finally, as the encore, “New Monastery” done as a ballad, with a gorgeous concluding cadenza by Andrew, which he ended with an achingly slow restatement of the melody.

I’m not sure you ever forget nights like that, but they do recede over the years under the waves of new live performances and all the other clutter. The night might have gone entirely missing but for the guitarist Nels Cline’s 2006 recording, New Monastery: A View into the Music of Andrew Hill. 

We know by now Nels can do anything and everything – in addition to his groups The Nels Cline Singers (a free-jazz trio without a vocalist anywhere in sight), the Nels Cline Trio, the Nels Cline 4 ,and all his other jazz iterations, he has guested with the Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band and has been a centerpiece of Wilco for the last twenty years.

New Monastery is among Nel’s most engaging works, not least because he manages a tough slalom, showcasing Andrew’s vast compositional range and paying tribute to the intricate structures of the tunes, while at the same time using those structures for his own inventive devices as well as those of the cornetist Bobby Bradford and the clarinetist Ben Goldberg. (A brief shout-out, too, to the accordionist Andrea Perkins.). 

This is a hard judgment to make, given the quality of the recording, but the highlight for me is the medley-blend of Andrew’s “Reconciliation” with “New Monastery.” For ten-and-a-half minutes, the band finds conjunctions between the tunes that felt, and still feel to me, like an elegy for Andrew, albeit it one that is not the least bit mournful.

You hear Andrew’s music with some frequency on Jazz Spectrum, with particular attention to his string of Blue Note records from 1963 to 1966 (including Point of Departure) in which he inveigled some of the most admired musicians of the time to join him – the vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson on Judgment! and Andrew!!!; the reedist John Gilmore on Andrew!!! and “Compulsion!!!!!); the trumpeter and cornetist Freddie Hubbard on Compulsion!!!!! and Pax. (By 1975, when Pax, which was recorded in 1965, was finally released, the Blue Note typesetter must have run out of exclamation points.)

Then, late last year, more than a decade and a half after Nels’s tribute to Andrew, the trumpeter Ron Horton released A Prayer for Andrew, a mix of Ron’s arrangements of Andrew’s tunes and a few of Ron’s originals, written to honor the pianist. The reedist Marty Ehrlich is on the front line, as are the alto saxophonist John O’Gallagher and the tenor saxophonist Marc Mommaas. The late pianist Frank Kimbrough, a prominent admirer of Andrew’s, anchors the rhythm section. The recording is among my selections for the best of 2023, so you’ve already heard significant parts of it. 

Tonight, the third set, which starts the second hour of the show, opens with Ron’s arrangement of Andrew’s wonderful tune, “Erato,” from Pax. On the original, Freddie Hubbard lays out, so there’s no trumpet/cornet part to work from. Not to worry: Ron finds an enthralling trumpet voicing for both the melody and his inventive solo. 

And the seventh set, which concludes the third hour, opens with Andrew’s tune, “Dedication,” from Point of Departure. I still favor Eric Dolphy’s bass-clarinet playing on the track, but Andrew’s piano behind Eric’s opening lines is wonderful, and Andrew’s own solo, which begins at the 2:11 mark when Joe Henderson falls out, is a marvel of spare brilliance that calls to mind Thelonious Monk’s methods, including the clever use of percussive single notes and surprising dissonances that are somehow just right.

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