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Andrew Hill - Solo

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Artist: Andrew Hill

Album: Solo

Label: Mosaic Select

Review date: Feb. 19, 2007

No more distinctive artist than Andrew Hill ever recorded for Blue Note Records. He was the last pianist to be personally selected for intensive recording by label founder Alfred Lion, which puts him in the company of Thelonious Monk and Herbie Nichols. This afforded him a myriad of opportunities to commit his compositions to tape with bands that were heavy on the heavies; Roy Haynes, Joe Henderson, John Gilmore, Eric Dolphy, Bobby Hutcherson and Richard Davis are just a few of the excellent players who graced the sessions that yielded great LPs like Black Fire, Smokestack, and Point of Departure. But things didn’t work out quite the way they should have; Hill’s music was too straight for the freedom folks, too free for the straight-ahead crowd, and his sales never matched his reputation. After Lion sold Blue Note, Hill moved on. He spent much of the ’70s teaching, touring college towns, and developing other sides of his art. At Colgate University he performed with an orchestra; on the road, he played solo, and he began recording in that mode as well.

Solo’s three discs culminate in From California With Love, a solo album released by Artist’s House Records in 1979. This was a trying time in Hill’s life; his wife, Laverne, who had also been a musical partner, was quite ill. They had settled in Pittsburg, Calif., a Bay Area bedroom community far from the toil and trouble of larger urban areas and the jazz life. You’d expect something melancholy to come from such circumstances, but quite the reverse is true. Whether it was shaped by the desire to connect with audiences that didn’t know much about jazz – Hill’s main work at the time was to play gigs in smaller town that were supported by a Smithsonian grant – or reflected Hill’s emotions of the time, the three sessions here yield some of the warmest and most welcoming music of his career.

It’s also quite rigorous music; as this set reveals, the LP was the product of much effort. Between August and October 1978, Hill went to Fantasy Studio in Berkeley three times, but only part of the final session made it to disc. The rest ended up in Hawaii, presumable in the archives of producer Ed Michel; everything except the LP’s two sidelong cuts, which had to be mastered from vinyl, is taken from the original tapes, and it’s a credit to transfer engineer Malcolm Addey that it all sounds equally good.

The first CD, recorded on August 30, mixes lengthy, associative pieces with shorter performances. It includes the box’s only outside material, a ruminative take on “Gone With The Wind” and a more sprightly saunter through Benny Golson’s “I Remember Clifford.” Hill could have stopped right here – “17 Mile Drive” and the aforementioned Golson tune offer plenty of brightness, “Moonlit Monterey” (which appears twice, in drastically different takes) a pensive shade. But apparently he found something missing, because on October 2 he returned for another session. Track titles like “California Tinge,” “Napa Valley Twilight,” and “Above Big Sur” might augur picnic baskets full of schmaltz, but the good vibrations here are of an entirely higher order. The latter tune is actually pretty dark and deliberate, more melancholy than mellow, and rather discursive in a way that suggests a trip through the back roads of the mind and emotions rather than a mellow motor down Highway 1. “California Tinge” sounds sunny, for sure, but also forthright and dramatic in a way that nothing from the first session was. Hill’s eccentric rhythmic sensibility, which might best be described as like a more fluid and less intransigent Thelonious Monk, also gets more play. Perhaps it’s the boldness of the musical statements that spurred Hill to come back 10 days later.

Third time did the trick. While “From California With Love” presents Hill at his most expansive, his ideas are more concentrated, their exploration more rapid and decisive. The piece may be 20 minutes long, but it still feels like he’s getting right to the point. “Reverend Du Bop” also moves with rapid deliberation – the latin rhythm that makes me wonder if the Reverend he had in mind was Dizzy Gillespie is there and gone in a moment – and yet it remains centered on one melodic phrase. By varying the harmonies and forcefulness of its restatements, they’re as rewarding as his melodic tangents.

Two shorter runs through another melody round out the session. “Pastoral Pittsburg” is studded with brief, boppish forays, but the core melody is as ardently amorous as anything Hill ever recorded. “Pittsburgh Impasse” tries to take the same material in another direction, segueing from the tune into fragments of stride and quick runs up and down the keyboard, but they never seem to blaze a trail too far in another direction. Pittsburg, apparently, was where he needed to be, no matter where jazz wanted to take him. Hill would stay there for another decade. After Laverne died, he moved back to New York in 1989 to commence his second association with Blue Note. Today, living with cancer but still trying out new ideas, he’s on his third.

By Bill Meyer

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