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Andrew Hill Sextet at Iridium

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New York City, long-time jazz capital, is going through an upheaval. It was once the home of legendary venues like the Village Gate, the Five-Spot, The Half-Note and others; locations graced by every major jazz musician of the last 30 years. In recent years, it had become a rather dry and predictable dichotomy. Avant-garders and downtowners played at the Knitting Factory or Tonic and during the Vision Festival. Traditional jazz musicians played the three or four upscale and prohibitively expensive dinner clubs on their own tours or during the JVC Jazz Festival.
The past year has brought some radical changes. Sweet Basil closed its doors after 26 years. The Jazz Standard, still relatively in its infancy, closed for six months of remodeling. Iridium changed locations. Small independent art galleries started hosting concert series. To what has this led? David S. Ware playing at the Blue Note prior to Oscar Peterson taking up residency. In other words, chaos. While we lament over the loss of Sweet Basil’s knowledgeable and friendly bartender and puzzle over why the nicest room in the city, The Jazz Standard, felt it necessary to remodel, we go out for the evening to the new Iridium and see Andrew Hill and his talented sextet.
Numerous problems with landlords and leases, a lack of space, sightline-obscuring columns, and a sound system unable to compete with the air-conditioning led to the move next to the Winter Garden Theater. This is unfortunate as the neighborhood of Lincoln Center is much more pleasant than that of Times Square. But let the comments about the club relate directly to Mr. Hill’s performance.
Andrew Hill was not the typical Blue Note pianist. Unlike his former label mates, Horace Silver, Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner, Andrew Hill’s strength is not in his solos. He tends to fade into the background of recording sessions, his impact felt through his compositional skills. A deft user of unison lines and tonal clusters, Hill is a much harder pianist to appreciate, especially since his style has changed little across years and musical fads.

His working band is composed of Greg Tardy on tenor, Ron Horton on trumpet and flugelhorn, Marty Erlich going the Dolphy route with alto, flute and bass clarinet, Aaren Stewart on bass and the phenomenal young drummer Nasheet Waits. The horn section is featured on Hill’s 2000 release “Dusk” (from which most of the evening’s material came) on the Palmetto label, an imprint with an interesting mix of up-and-comers and old-timers.

Unlike the old Iridium, where musicians had to walk through the kitchen and the audience to get to the ankle-high stage, the new location sports an actual backstage and substantially higher performing space. Gone are the surrealist ceiling and wall decoration, dim lighting and oddly puffy seating. To the band’s advantage is the increased area of the stage — it would be hard to imagine a sextet playing at the old Iridium. To the band’s detriment is the desire of management to make as much money as possible, even if it means seating people during the performance and even moving tables with a loud scraping noise during the first number. The sound system, supposedly the same one used at Carnegie Hall (NYC’s worst-sounding jazz hall), was atrocious during the first number but evened out as the performance continued.

If we take the first number as a loss, the second, a peculiarly Hill-like ballad, made up for it. Starting with an almost swing beat and a beautiful lyrical melody, it did not take long to push it just to the edge of the avant-garde and back. Erlich effectively mixed both the romantic and squeaky potentials of the bass clarinet and Stewart added a thoughtful bowed solo. Hill’s improvisation during this piece seemed disjointed, one moment melodic, then next dissonant. Nevertheless, at the end, over the perfunctory audience clapping, it all seemed to make sense.

The middle piece, “Tough Love”, off the aforementioned Dusk album, was the highlight of the evening’s performance. Brimming with hard-edged bop, it was propelled by Waits’ Blakey-esque drum lines. The unison lines played by the three front-line horns utilized a stunning counterpoint explored further during the simultaneous soloing during the improv sections. My companion described it as the “chirping of birds”, an apt metaphor for something so simultaneously beautiful and chaotic.

The show ended with a rousing “Tough Love” reprise, a healthy round of applause and then the check – a brutal reminder of the upscale jazz circuit. The show was short, just exceeding 65 minutes with a third of the crowd leaving during the set after they had finished their dinners. Iridium will never be the Village Gate, but it seems that the new location and the higher percentage of Times Square tourists are pushing it, and the New York Jazz scene in general, even further away.

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