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Andrew Hill: Time Lines and Full Circles

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When I think about Blue Note, I think, to a certain extent, about traditional values.
Andrew Hill's a busy man.

"I'm playing in New York in March and after that, I'm going to Europe for a European promo for a few days with the quintet, he smiles. "The next month, I'm touring Europe then touring Europe again a bit after that. I have a commitment to do a string quartet, which I'm working on. There's a lot of things going on.

Quite an agenda for someone who was diagnosed with cancer in 2004. "I'd had a resurgence and had built up this incredible circuit performing, he recalls. "So the scare of it all was that I had to stop performing and again, I'm beginning to perform again this year. The way it affected my life is that it's given me an incredible love for the audience. At this point in my life, of course I would have a fixed income from certain things I've done, but the generosity of the music lovers in terms of their buying my CDs has put me in a position where I don't have to worry about money. I can be more appreciative of other things that make the music important. I can make the choice to either stop performing or perform. I'm lucky enough to have these doctors that insist upon my returning and being active. In essence, it's given everything more meaning and more validity. I don't look at it as just something bad happening. I think something beautiful happened, because the quality of life isn't in the quantity, but in the quality.

Hill 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 '60s, 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 '70s but returned to the label briefly in 1989 and 1990 to record the Eternal Spirit and But Not Farewell CDs.

Now Hill has come back once again to Blue Note for his new album Time Lines, a set of new compositions performed by his established band of drummer Eric McPherson, bassist John Hebert, and reeds player Greg Tardy, augmented by trumpeter Charles Tolliver, who recorded with Hill in the '60s. "I'd thought about doing the record with a quintet, he recalls. "And I had thought about using one of the newer trumpet players - some of them are really splendid and magnificent. But I saw that Charles was having a resurgence, so I figured that if he was still competent in a few areas, it might be interesting. It might give the group a balance in the direction that I wanted. I wanted this group to be free, but exciting rhythmically. It was good - by inserting him, it helped give it that direction. And with this group, the trumpet player won't be stuck in a certain slot - he knows he's got the freedom to play the trumpet.

Remarkably, it was Hill's illness that prompted his return to Blue Note. "I was talking to [Blue Note producer] 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.

"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.

Hill's return to the label seems particularly appropriate because, as Hill notes, the CDs are selling - Blue Note's 2003 release of the never-issued 1969 nonet session Passing Ships and its 2004 reissue of the 1968 quintet recording Dance With Death were greeted by the kind of attention and sales figures that accompany its current releases. Did Hill feel that in recording a new album for the label, he might be competing with himself?

"At first, I thought that I was, he allows. "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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