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Andrew Hill: Coming Back Full Circle

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Some of the mistakes that musicians have made is to think, 'well, the audience aren't musicologists, so how can they have a right to like or dislike it?' They give no rights to the audience. But actually, they have more rights than the musicians, since they've been listening to this music for years!
Although pianist/composer Andrew Hill has recorded for a variety of record labels, he is, in many ways, one of the quintessential Blue Note recording artists. Signed to the label after relocating to New York from his native Chicago in the early 1960s by label founder Alfred Lion (who later referred to the pianist/composer/bandleader as his "last great protégé ), Hill produced a remarkable series of recordings—Black Fire, Andrew! and Point of Departure, to name several—that, with the support of musicians like Joe Farrell, Bobby Hutcherson, Richard Davis and Eric Dolphy, showcased his vivid, idiosyncratic compositions and unique approach to harmony and time. Hill had left Blue Note by the 1970s but returned to the label briefly in 1989 and 1990 to record the Eternal Spirit and But Not Farewell CDs.

Hill's fifty-year career has had its ups and downs—as has jazz music itself over the same period—but he's never recorded a bad album. Hill's reputation has, in any case, only grown and solidified in recent years; Blue Note's 2003 release of his never-issued 1969 nonet session Passing Ships and its 2004 reissue of his 1968 quintet recording Dance With Death were greeted by the kind of attention and sales figures that accompany its current releases. Hill was diagnosed with cancer in 2004, which forced a break in his performance schedule—and, remarkably, also helped lead to Hill's return to the Blue Note label and his outstanding new CD Time Lines. I visited Hill at his New Jersey home to find out about his return to Blue Note, the members of his band, his notions on composition and jazz, and the great new CD.

All About Jazz: I'm going to begin with a question that you're probably going to be sick of in a couple of months. Your new CD Time Lines puts you back on Blue Note Records. How'd the return to Blue Note come about?

Andrew Hill: Well, I was talking to [Blue Note producer/executive] Michael Cuscuna and we were discussing my physical condition. He asked what he could do, and the thought was to do another series for Blue Note Records. Now, I don't know if that was dictated by kindness; some people have said that it was dictated by the fact that the CDs are selling. There's that balance where people say, "it's love, or "it's greed. And I don't know how it came about—but I'm happy.

When I think about Blue Note, I think about traditional values to a certain extent. Because it seems like at a certain point, everything in jazz had gotten so free and so formless—and at the same time a lot of the techniques of classical music have been incorporated into the music. But when I think of Blue Note, I think of this area and time where within the form you had the black music and the white music. And in all the neighborhoods, it was the popular music. And now all of a sudden, the black side hasn't survived but the white side has. Of course, music isn't black or white, but still, to a certain extent, a certain form of the music was put in limbo. But every time people have reached for that form, they prosper—just like all of a sudden, they found a Coltrane/Monk record that sold 400,000 copies. So people like the music. People have always said that record companies have always had more control than the people. But what has amazed me through the years is that what really dictates over the years is the people's taste. Hype really has nothing to do with it. Before I came back to Blue Note, there was already a beautiful resurgence for me—people on the east coast, New York, Europe have been really generous in what they've given me. And it was given without me being on any record company. It's been great, getting an annuity during this last sick period—I haven't had to work. So it's like coming full circle.

AAJ: Blue Note has been both releasing unreleased older product of yours and re-releasing previously released sessions you've done as well. This stuff has had a pretty high profile and considering the quality of records like Passing Ships and Dance With Death, it should—it's fantastic music that's aged perfectly. So do you feel at all that with the release of the new Time Line you're competing with yourself?

AH: At first, I thought that I was. But then I just started using Art Blakey as a comparison. At a certain point in the past, I remember thinking that Art Blakey was a little too retrospective; he had his group and they did such-and-such and they they'd do it all over again. But then I decided that in jazz, you can't be too competitive, not with yourself, because what you're doing is allegedly documenting a spontaneous music that's supposed to have some type of synergy with the audience. So instead of my approaching what I'm doing like it's some kind of retrospective, I try to approach the music saying, "what feeling is there in the music that's fulfilling certain tendencies? Maybe those are tendencies that occurred before. That's what the music is based on, I think. A lot of times, people concentrate so much on being different that they're just taking it out of any context.

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