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Andrew Hill / Dave Holland - A Beautiful Day / What Goes Around

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Artist: Andrew Hill / Dave Holland

Album: A Beautiful Day / What Goes Around

Label: ECM

Review date: Jan. 21, 2003

Two Masterful M.O.'s: The Big Bands of Andrew Hill and Dave Holland

"Conference of the birds." "Point of departure." Taken out of context, these phrases register as nebulous cliches, but to fans of progressive jazz, they stand for two of the most beloved records ever released. Andrew Hill's 1964 Point of Departure, the high point of the pianist's brief, stunning first series on Blue Note, sounds bracingly fresh even today. It combines Hill's occasionally schizophrenic and often revelatory writing with an incredible array of improvisers (featuring one of the only recorded meetings between Eric Dolphy and Kenny Dorham). Meanwhile, the bouncy, hyperactive rhythms and good-natured sax squalls (courtesy of another rare pairing, Anthony Braxton and Sam Rivers) of bassist Dave Holland's Conference of the Birds, released in 1973, epitomize the international progressive jazz scene of the early '70s.

After Point, Andrew Hill entered a quarter century of brilliance in obscurity, finally emerging in 2001 with Dusk, a comeback record of sorts that cemented the pianist's already strong critical reputation. Holland, on the other hand, has remained very much aboveground since Conference, releasing a series of deservedly acclaimed quintet recordings featuring hot, young post-modernists like altoist Steve Coleman. 1999's Prime Directive, however, represented a critical and popular watershed for the bassist. All of a sudden, the Dave Holland Quintet, a sleek band that seasoned its athletic post-bop with odd-time funk and Latin grooves, became synonymous with contemporary mainstream jazz.

In 2002, both Hill and Holland released their debut big band recordings. With What Goes Around, Holland proves that he really is mainstream jazz's finest ambassador. On the vastly different A Beautiful Day, Hill demonstrates (if we didn't know already) that he is one of America's greatest musical eccentrics, existing in a weird, exalted space beyond generic considerations.

When listening to What Goes Around, I was frequently reminded that Holland's most renowned sideman gig was with Miles Davis's 1969-70 quintet, hands-down one of the funkiest groups ever. Holland anchored that unit with his relentless vamps ("It's About that Time," anyone?). These sorts of irresistible grooves form the edifice of What Goes Around. Holland's charts, full of off-beat accents and shifts in rhythmic feel, can be dizzying, but you can bet that whenever it's time for someone to blow, the leader is going to be trancing out in the pocket with drummer Billy Kilson. On the title track, the band alternates between two 11-beat grooves: the first a brooding bossa figure and the second a steaming slab of funk swagger that could easily be mistaken for a Vandermark 5 breakdown. Holland digs into the bossa like a squatter and doesn't budge (even through Kilson's drum solo) for most of the track's 17+ minutes. The soloists hop on and off, but the groove is what you'll remember.

This assessment applies for the record as a whole. While the downtempo numbers, "Blues for C.M. and "First Snow," are pristine, they are undistinguished, as the solos do not seem to percolate without the rhythm section spurring them on. The heaviest blowing (e.g. Chris Potter's tenor solo on "What Goes Around") comes when Holland and Kilson are cooking down below.

Andrew Hill has an entirely different concept of rhythm. Moving from What Goes Around to A Beautiful Day, I was struck by an overwhelming sense that the bottom had dropped out. There are no vamps per se here, and the grooves are fragile. This music floats, lighting where it pleases; its pulse mutates constantly. The style of drummer Nasheet Waits contributes greatly to this sensation. He swings very deeply (in a fleet, dancing way reminiscent of Tony Williams), but he often breaks free of the beat to play pure texture.

The conflict within Hill's solos is fascinating. On "Faded Beauty," he mars precious melodies with crude low-register thuds and takes eerie, unresolved detours. As a result of this tension, one is suspicious of the uncomplicated beauty of the pastoral, flute-driven theme statement that follows. Many of the written sections of the record share the stately beauty (reminiscent of the track "Dedication" from Point of Departure) of this section, but the solos keep stumbling into ugly or heady territory.

Hill's deliberately inconclusive big band concept strikes a fascinating contrast with Holland's more straightforward m.o. As the freedom of A Beautiful Day thrills my heart and mind, the deadly grooves of What Goes Around spellbind my ass.

By Hank Shteamer

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