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Dusted's Marc Medwin takes a look at Andrew Hill's new record, Time Lines.

Time Lines

“Just shows you what can be done the second time,” says Andrew Hill with a smile. The pianist is talking about the two versions of a track from his new disc, but he might as well have been alluding to the phoenix-like qualities of his own career. I’m apologetic as I fire off the questions that are now becoming standard fare for him, and he’s more than gracious. “No no man, we’ll just keep goin’! You go ahead, ask, ’cause we can approach something, all of a sudden, getting to it in a whole new way, and then we’re in a place we’ve never been before.”

I hear his music that way. For over 40 years, Hill’s work has orbited the boundaries of fashion, of trend and of any attendant considerations; he doesn’t play “out” in any stereotypical sense, and he’s not afraid to do a double take if he feels that his music is going too far in a direction that’s not satisfying him. His first extended stint with Blue Note, from 1963-70, gave rise to many projects that could alternately be described as “complex” or “Third Stream,” but he is quick to point out that each composition is an entity unto itself. “Composition is a miracle. You try all these things, different ideas, until you find one that just takes over, starts forming itself really, in a shape that you never thought about.”

His playing is, and always has been, the unifying stylistic factor. Joyfully innocent, rambunctious, gentle and achingly beautiful by turn, he slides in and out of Monk’s wake, tipping the nod to fellow Blue Note alum Herbie Nichols’ pianistic orchestrations. He plays in fits and starts, often eschewing stereotypical bebop-born virtuosity in favor of harmonic introspection punctuated by prankish twists. After his 10-year silence from 1990-2000, it became clear that these tendencies had become completely integrated with his compositional language, and his first disc for Palmetto, the highly acclaimed Dusk, demonstrated a sublimated return to his more complex constructions of the early 1960s.

Yet, somehow, the overall aesthetic was simpler, more direct, incorporating some of the “grass roots” of his late ’60s and early ’70s writing, rendering each foray into free blowing all the more surprising. The trend has continued on this newest record. Moments of introspection are interrupted, sometimes cataclysmically, by “new thing” honks, squeals and shrieks. Hill is very non-chalant about their inclusion. “Well it’s 40 years after the fact. It’s like any technique, like pizzicato or arco, you find them in encyclopedias and everything else, so why shouldn’t they show up?” He elaborates later: “Any statement, cultural, artistic or sociological, is kind of a synthesis of generations – it may be a statement of three generations together, not just one.”

It’s the most succinct summary of his music, as it’s evolved and evolving now, that he could possibly make. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the opening track of Time Lines, the quintet version of “Malachi,” his ode to Art Ensemble of Chicago bassist Malachi Favors. “That was one of those times when a song wrote itself. I saw a picture in a magazine, a few months before he died, and it all came out of that.”

The playing is wistful, all five clearly comfortable with the dialectic of styles Hill’s compositions allow. Greg Tardy, playing with Hill yet again on this new disc, shows himself to be an astonishing bass clarinet player; Eric Dolphy, with whom Hill played in 1964, is certainly referenced, but Tardy’s playing is smoother, more timbrally subtle and expressive, demonstrating the truth of Hill’s theory of stylistic inculcation. Hill has no illusions about novelty for its own sake. “You see all these people you know, trying to create something new, but what they create isn’t grounded in tradition. Consequently, you find them playing their whole lives for no audience.”

Time Lines is bookended by versions of “Malachi,” the second a solo rendition. “That was Michael (Cuscuna)’s idea. He liked the way it sounded as a solo, so he wanted to end with that.” The spare nature of the solo version lays bare the transgenerational nature of Hill’s conception. The more traditionally “classical” timbres achieved by a well-tuned piano and impressionistic compositional leanings swirl amidst Monkish clusters, dissonances that hang unresolved as internal counterpoint settles around them. It’s indicative of all the compositions on offer here, especially the title track, which bumps, lurches and rattles its way over jazz history as a whole. Tardy’s playing is as free as it ever has been, and veteran trumpeter Charles Tolliver brings both innovation and tradition to his solo as each rapid-fire phrase ends with some New Orleans vibrato.

Multi-leveled historical narrative and extramusical concerns are nothing new for Hill. Dusk was loosely based around a Harlem renaissance narrative; similarly, “Whitsuntide,” from the new disc, deals with the treatment of Northern slaves during the Christmas holiday. Yet, none of this is readily apparent in any overt musical symbolism, and as with every new Hill offering, the most lasting impression is left by how tight and complete the group communication can be. The generations merge seamlessly on this record, Tolliver making a welcome re-appearance after years of virtual silence and adding immensely to the morphing group dynamic. “Oh yeah, but bands always get better when you allow them to play! Some band leaders are so busy leading the band that they don’t let the artists bloom, or grow – you can’t stop that!”

Our phone call is continually interrupted – agents, groceries being delivered, even what we both take to be a passing plane cutting us off. Hill is busy these days, and I remark to him about the amount of coverage he’s getting. “Whew – you can say that again!” It seems fair to posit that his struggle with lung cancer has brought new focus to his life. “I’m just happy to be alive, to be able to work. I’m lucky – anything I can write or record is open to me right now, I have a studio open to me – you know.” This freedom and renewed vigor, coupled with his quintet’s heavy performance schedule, has produced one of the best discs of Hill’s long career. He seems unwilling to speculate too much on future events, preferring to take things a moment at a time. There were plans for an opera, which came to naught, but “Smooth” became an integral part of Time Lines’ narrative. Hill’s voice bears no regret for anything that might have been; if that philosophy produces music of this caliber, amen to that.

By Marc Medwin

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