"There is plenty going on," designated cheerleader Stanley Crouch informs the reader, on composer / pianist Andrew Hill's latest album, A Beautiful Day, which showcases Hill's sixteen-piece big band in a concert performance last January at New York's famed Birdland nightclub. "With a vision given to great plasticity," Crouch writes, "[Hill] has found his own ways to reinterpret 4/4 swing, the blues, the romantic or meditative ballad, and the Afro-Hispanic rhythms that have almost invariably connected one generation of Jazz musicians to those who preceded them . . .[he] loves to imply the obvious and allude to the profound as much as he enjoys any particular form or groove." In other words, the more impenetrable the prose, the less likely it is that the band will swing. Granted, Hill is a respected musician - has been for years - so he must surely have a game plan.
While some may find his approach to big-band composition fresh and exhilarating, others (this listener included) may be left scratching their heads and wondering what the - is happening. There is, as Crouch affirms, "plenty going on." The question is, exactly what does it mean? There is ample huffing and puffing, banging and braying, but to what purpose? There's not much in the way of engaging melody anywhere to be found, nor is there any indication of a steady rhythmic pulse that one can readily put his or her finger on.
On the other hand, if one wishes to ascertain the upper and lower limits of the baritone sax, he (or she) need only listen to J.D. Parron's over-the-top discourse on "J Di." Hill's "Divine Revelation" is more earthy than sacred, while "A Beautiful Day" is besmirched by murky ensemble passages and tedious solos by tenor Greg Tardy, trumpeter Dave Ballou and altos Marty Ehrlich and John Savage. "Faded Beauty" does have its moments (lovely flute work by Savage, appropriately restrained comments by Ehrlich, on bass clarinet, and Hill) but "Bellezza," after an auspicous start, quickly jumps the track and careens wildly toward adversity, escorted by trumpeter Ron Horton and tubaist Jose D'Avila.
"5 Mo" takes up where "Bellezza" left off, with brass, reeds and rhythm producing an abundance of noise but not much entertaining music (our opinion, of course, as is everything else in this review; please listen for yourself and draw your own conclusions). Hill does have a well-developed sense of humor, we're told, which may account for why the album's cover photo is upside down. Even more meaningful, to me, is Crouch's assertion that Hill approaches the work of composition "using the improvisational languages of John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman and Don Ellis" - I never understood any of them either.
Contact: Palmetto Records, 71 Washington Place, New York, NY 10011 (phone 1-800-PALMCDS; www.palmetto-records.com).
Track Listing: Divine Revelation; Faded Beauty; Bellezza; 5 Mo; New Pinnochio; J Di; A Beautiful Day; 11/8 (61:28).
Personnel: Andrew Hill, leader, piano; Ron Horton, Dave Ballou, Laurie Frinck, Bruce Staalens, trumpet; Charlie Gordon, Joe Fiedler, Mike Fahn, trombone; Jose d'Avila, tuba; John Savage, alto sax, flute; Marty Ehrlich, alto sax, clarinet, bass clarinet, flute; Aaron Stewart, tenor sax; Greg Tardy, tenor sax, clarinet, bass clarinet; J.D. Parron, baritone sax, bass clarinet; Scott Colley, bass; Nasheet Waits, drums.