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Andrew Hill: Coming Back Full Circle

By Published: February 27, 2006

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.

AAJ: Meaningless novelty for its own sake.

AH: [laughing] You said it, but it's true!

AAJ: I want to talk about the new record, Time Lines. When you did the recording, did you have a large number of compositions to choose from?

AH: Well, I wrote a few things especially for the date. But the main thing is that we were lucky to perform for a period at Birdland, which was before any recording was considered. Iridium, also—these clubs really gave me a generous amount to perform. So I felt it was my responsibility to create some music that had some type of synergy with the live audience. So we chose from some older things—not that many, two or three—and then we came up with some newer things that then fit right into the recording. There were a lot of things that could have been included, but I would have been including them for legacy, not for people.

AAJ: This is a quintet album, and the players are your working band, plus your old collaborator Charles Tolliver. Was the format your idea—meaning did you always want to do a quintet record?

AH: Yeah, I'd thought about doing the record with quintet. 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 this group to be. 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.

AAJ: I like the sequencing of the record—it starts and ends with the two versions of "Malachi, and there's the two "Ry Rounds near the beginning and end as well—there's a sort of elegant symmetry. I really get the impression that you thought about presenting the album in this order. Did you?

AH: A lot of it was Michael Cuscuna's idea. But a lot of it was sort of following the shape of the old Blue Note records—they'd have a bluesy-type number, a Latin number. Everything wasn't the same. It was good music, but it was inclusive of all people—not just one dimension of the music for a small segment of people who only liked that one type of music.

AAJ: Let's talk about your band. It's composed of younger players, except for Tolliver. I am very impressed with this rhythm section of Eric McPherson and John Hebert; I'm interested with the way they deal with time on this record. It's different than any other band you've had before—"Time Lines is a good an example of what they're doing as any. Tell me what this rhythm section brings to your music.

AH: Well, they have a certain flexibility with rhythm where there's an emotion to the rhythm. I like this rhythm section for this looseness—but still, loose as it is, it's not just energy-time drumming. The drumming can create off the rhythm, and that's what they do, really: they use rhythm for a theme and create off that rhythm.

AAJ: It's fluid and sparkling but never chaotic.

AH: Right, it's not chaotic. I wanted the form of rhythm, not just chaotic energy.

AAJ: Greg Tardy plays tenor and clarinets. You've had as many amazing horn players on your records as anyone I can think of, going back to include most prominently Eric Dolphy, Joe Farrell, and Greg Osby. When it comes to reeds players, is there some specific feature you're attracted to that they all possess? Or are you more attracted to players for their individual qualities?

AH: For themselves. But you also play with people that have a love for the music, that aren't bound to any harmonic or rhythmic style, that have the flexibility to interpret whatever the music is and bring something different to it. I look for a horn player's ability to fill the music up and provide what I call a creative contact with the group—something that comes out of the music and that will stand out enough where people will hear it. Some of the mistakes that musicians have made are to think, "Well, the audiences 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! Maybe not analytically, but it's their music. At least for some of them, it's their music, and they can hear it more purely than the musicians. So I look for players who are not so contained in themselves. The old-timers in jazz used to tell me, "it's good to be different, because difference is great—that's what the music is based on. But lose that energy between the audience and the players and you have nothing.

AAJ: Well, then you might as well just practice and never play out.

AH: Or only play out at art councils' concerts. Then you can get some people who want to identify with you more than your music.

AAJ: What do you like best about Tardy's playing?

AH: I like the fact that he's able to change each time he plays. He's got the ability and the sensibility to create a different solo each time that's interesting. And he does listen to and try to fit in with what's going on around him.

AAJ: You've used a lot of bass clarinet in your groups over the years—Bennie Maupin, Greg Tardy. I think you've done a lot to make that instrument more prominent in jazz beyond the influence of Eric Dolphy, who of course also played with you. Do you have a special love for the instrument, or does it bring something specific that you hear in the pieces you write?

AH: There's not any great affinity for it. It's just that sometimes you hire people; you ask them to perform for you. And then you have to give them full respect for whatever instrument they play. Sometimes, when you trust them enough to let them do certain things, they give more of themselves than you even expected. It's not the love of the instrument itself; it's giving the instrumentalist the freedom to do whatever they can.

AAJ: You've already spoken of Charles Tolliver and what you thought he could add to this group. But tell me a bit more about what he's bringing—he does seem extremely comfortable in your music on this record. I think on "Time Lines, he really makes the meaning of the word "play obvious—there's a huge sense of play and joyousness in his trumpet work. He seems almost gleeful.

AH: That's a good question because that's something I really have been trying to deal with since I did those shows with him. That's the question that's been asked: "why did you use Charles? I guess he's bringing his presence in 2006. But it is a hard question for me to answer truthfully. I could give it a little spin—but I really can't spin on it because a lot of times—like the record title Passing Ships—the best thing you can do is pass by someone and not hurt him.

AAJ: Well, sometimes you don't need a spoken, intellectual reason to do something.

AH: Yeah! It's like love—when it's on, no one has to tell you! And when it's given you what it has to give you, that intangible situation, no one has to explain it.

AAJ: The song "Malachi appears twice on the record. There's a band version and your solo piano version. This has one of your loveliest melodies, and to me it's the spaces between the notes that give the song its power. Why did you include the two different versions?

AH: I played the song on piano to Michael [Cuscuna] and he liked that version, because to him, the piano version offered something the group version didn't offer. So he asked if I'd mind playing it solo and I said no. The way it's compiled it fit in very well; it's very nice.

AAJ: The band version has a beautiful, swaying quality—there's a dancing feeling to the bass and cymbals. This is a song I can't imagine being played at a faster tempo; it seems like it could only exist at the speed it's in.

AH: Well, sometimes you can find the right tempo for a song. But going back to the Blue Note tradition, the way people used to treat a melody—a good melody can be played fast, it can be played Latin, it can be played as the blues. It should be adaptable to all those different approaches. But here we might have discovered the right tempo for it.

AAJ: My favorite song on the album is "Time Lines. It's built around that staccato theme and the tenor/trumpet call-and-response with your piano darting around between them. What can you tell me about this song?

AH: "Time Lines reminds me of a whirling, Turkish-dervish kind of music—not that it's exactly like that. The 11/8 time gives it a hypnotic quality, especially when you count the time—even though it's eleven—as a four. Those times exist within each other. It feeds itself because there's a combination of crossing rhythms that one can play against the main rhythm.

AAJ: That 11/8 time gives me a feeling of oceanic, vibrating rhythm—like a sea's surface that changes slightly constantly.

AH: That's what I like about it, because it really incorporates everyone naturally in an unnatural rhythm.

AAJ: There are also two versions on the CD of "Ry Rounds —sort of two snapshots of something taken from different angles. I know they're in different time signatures—one in a sort of complex 4/4 and the other in mixed meter?

AH: The first one was a 4/4 and a six against four. The second was focused on the six more than it was focused on the four. And it's the same melody, basically. It shows what spontaneous playing of a tune, playing it over again, will do; that's why it varied so much the second week from the first week. We didn't have to do it again, but the results were interesting, and we seemed to get to the spirit of it.

AAJ: Somehow, the second version—"Ry Rounds 2, which you recorded a week or two after the first—its time gives it a slightly more ominous quality than the first.

AH: It does have a little more of that to it. "Ry Rounds seems to be a composition that one can record over and over and over again and something different will come out.

AAJ: "Whitsuntide is a thoughtful ballad with some particularly expressive piano, whether in its intro, your solo, or just when you're accompanying Tolliver's solo.

AH: We've been playing that song off and on. It's kind of like "Ry Rounds —each time we play it, it comes out different. It seems to lend itself to spontaneous playing; it has a certain quality but the players aren't trapped by that quality. There are so many different things that people can expand on. And I like Eric on that one; he's a very underrated drummer. And I'm glad he is so I can use him more [laughing].

AAJ: Do you think your playing has changed over the years?

AH: It has changed in a way, but in another sense, it hasn't. It's the same, but everything is not the same. Now I find in this period that it makes more sense to reinsert certain traditional values. Before, I wasn't trying to get away from them, but I did stray from them—it felt like the normal thing to do. But now, with such young groups—you can't control what they play, but you can control the form that it's in to keep it grounded. You almost have to. Now, it's like coming back full circle, and that's interesting to me, because by doing that, you become more familiar with what's been done before.

AAJ: Do you ever find, in terms of your playing, that there are things you used to do that you don't feel like doing anymore?

AH: I've been to the point where I've said, "well, I've done this, and there's no need to do it anymore. I don't need to play scales, because I don't need everything to be scalar. But as I grew older, that was just bad judgment on my part—all of that is part of a process, part of a continuation. That's what any style, then or now, is built upon.

AAJ: Playing and composing are not the same thing. You're known as a composer as well as musician. What are the differences?

AH: For me, composing is just a matter of writing something and figuring out what genre the music fits. A melody can fit anything if you're familiar with the different forms. When you're playing, you have to be more spontaneous—your technique has to be at a certain level. But they're both very similar because you're still dealing with grabbing or recycling ideas to serve the form.

AAJ: Over your entire career, you've had fantastic improvisers playing your music. But on all your recordings, whoever is improvising, I can hear the song in what they're doing. I can hear the themes. Your music seems to produce improvisations that refer back to the theme and structure of the pieces. Do you think about the improvisation that will be produced when you compose a piece?

AH: I think more about the composition. No matter what style it is, if a composition is strong enough when you write it, it lends itself to all these things, to improvisation. It's the quality of the composition. I can write something and say, "Oh, this is great, I wrote this, I can write twenty-five more of these. But when I come back to them, it doesn't stand up on its own. If a composition can stand up on its own, to the next time you listen to it, then it's something that can be soloed on.

AAJ: You've played with some remarkable musicians. I can't ask about all of them. Is there any musician, or several, that has had a huge effect on you, that has particularly informed your life?

AH: In the early days, in Chicago, there were so many. I really started when the music was the popular music, so you could walk down the street and they were having jam sessions. There were all these different places for music, so there were so many people then doing so many things. They didn't have any university systems for anyone trying to understand the formation of the music, so you'd really have to ask these individuals to share certain knowledge. So everyone from that period shared so many things with me. The first thing they brought was that there was a similarity to tonic and dominant harmony, but that was where the similarity ended. As Charlie Parker said, the melody was the rhythm. Until he came on the scene, at least according to rumor—which is false witness, maybe—the music had no rhythm. They had to use the rhythm of swing. But when he came on the scene, the rhythm of the melody transformed into something else that took it away from swing. So anyway, there were so many people passing impressions at any time. If someone is generous enough to share their knowledge with you, knowledge of any kind, you're always enlightened and helped to evolve.

AAJ: You might never think of your records once they're done. But which of your recordings—or just plain songs—do you like best?

AH: I try not to look at it like that. If you say, "Well, this was successful because of this, then you've trapped yourself. I liked them all for their sincerity. Of all the projects, some were better-received by the audience. I liked them all, because there was a certain sincerity that went into all of them.

AAJ: I want to ask you about your health. I know that in 2004 you were diagnosed with cancer, and I know that had to make for a difficult year. How has that affected your work and your life?

AH: Well, I'd had a resurgence and had built up this incredible circuit performing. 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 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. The answer to the whole question, in essence, is 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. I'm going to have a quality existence.

AAJ: What are you going to do in 2006? I know you're doing gigs in March.

AH: Yeah, 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. 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 are a lot of things going on. The emphasis is over my state of being frightened with the fact that I have to live with a terminal illness—I'm just trying to do today.

AAJ: How do you think jazz music is doing today?

AH: I think it's better than it's been in twenty or thirty years. Like I said, a certain element of the black music was lost. Once it wasn't supported by the corporations, but it breathed better; it was more naturally selected by the people—who they liked, who they didn't. But now, we're dealing with a digital revolution. People will spend a hundred dollars for a Knicks ticket, but they won't spend it on jazz. And jazz had become such a high-priced music and at the same time, the selection wasn't based on knowledge—it was mostly hype.

But now, with Yahoo, that sort of thing, younger musicians are now listening—they can get Charlie Mingus streamed for a couple of dollars. They can do selective listening, and the music business is getting better. You've got an intelligent cross-section of people who like the music. What that does is that the younger musicians are looking at the Blue Note things as being classics of music. Not saying that's better than any other genre, but I do hear more younger players coming on the scene playing themselves, but in the tradition. The only thing I'm worried about is places like the MacArthur Foundation are looking for young jazz artists—they don't want to give a grant to anyone over forty. That's wrong to me, because they're setting up a false standard for the music. But in spite of all that, the music is doing so good. Especially in New York, it's incredible—people are out there creating this repertoire of music and no one's ever heard it before.

And people enjoy it. The scene hasn't been this vibrant in a long time. People talk about Wynton Marsalis being at the top, which is a conversation piece and an argument. But if you've got a top [laughing], you've got a bottom. Anytime you talk about a top, you sort of justify the so-called lower levels, so you've got places like the 55 Bar, all these places around now for musicians to play in. It sort of reminds me of the fifties; then you could get on the bus and come to the 5 Spot, two dollars, and listen to Coltrane—and get back on the bus and go home. All for twenty dollars or so. Jazz wasn't a big business then. So I think this is a good period, if the other hands don't put their fingers in the pie too much. The music hasn't been this good in thirty years. And as for Lincoln Center itself, I feel that Lincoln Center jazz will do great, because the only way it can survive is to be inclusive with others.


Selected Discography

Andrew Hill, Time Lines (Blue Note, 2006)
Andrew Hill, Mosaic Select 16 (Mosaic, 2005)
Andrew Hill, The Day the World Stood Still (Stunt, 2003)
Andrew Hill, A Beautiful Day (Palmetto, 2002)
Greg Osby, The Invisible Hand (Blue Note, 2000)
Anthony Braxton, Ten Compositions (Quartet) 2000 (CIMP, 2000)
Andrew Hill, Dusk (Palmetto, 1999)
Reggie Workman, Summit Conference (Postcards, 1993)
Andrew Hill, But Not Farewell (Blue Note, 1990)
Andrew Hill, Eternal Spirit (Blue Note, 1989)
Andrew Hill, Verona Rag (Soul Note, 1986)
Andrew Hill, Shades (Soul Note, 1986)
Andrew Hill, Faces of Hope (Soul Note, 1980)
Andrew Hill, Strange Serenade (Soul Note, 1980)
Andrew Hill, Nefertiti (Inner City/Test of Time, 1976)
Andrew Hill, Hommage (East Wind/Test of Time, 1975)
Andrew Hill, Divine Revelation (Steeplechase, 1975)
Andrew Hill, Blue Black (East Wind/Test of Time, 1975)
Andrew Hill, Spiral (Freedom, 1974)
Andrew Hill, Passing Ships (Blue Note, 1969)
Andrew Hill, Lift Every Voice (Blue Note, 1969)
Andrew Hill, Dance With Death (Blue Note, 1968)
Andrew Hill, Grass Roots (Blue Note, 1968)
Andrew Hill, Involution (Blue Note, 1966)
Andrew Hill, Compulsion (Blue Note, 1965)
Andrew Hill, One for One (Blue Note, 1965)
Andrew Hill, Cosmos (Blue Note, 1965)
Bobby Hutcherson, Dialogue (Blue Note, 1965)
Bobby Hurcherson, Spiral (Blue Note, 1965)
Andrew Hill, Andrew!!! (Blue Note, 1964)
Andrew Hill, Point of Departure (Blue Note, 1964)
Andrew Hill, Judgement! (Blue Note, 1964)
Andrew Hill, Smoke Stack (Blue Note, 1963)
Andrew Hill, Black Fire (Blue Note, 1963)
Hank Mobley, No Room for Squares (Blue Note, 1963)
Joe Henderson, Our Thing (Blue Note, 1963)
Hank Mobley, Straight No Filter (Blue Note, 1963)
Andrew Hill, So in Love (Warwick, 1960)

Photo Credits:
Top Photo: Courtesy of Andrew Hill
Second Photo: Russ Escritt
Third Photo: Frank Rubolino
Bottom Photo: Jimmy Katz

Related Article: Andrew Hill Sextet at Iridium (Concert Review, 2004)

Note: Portions of this interview were also published in the AAJ-NY Newspaper. Thanks to Laurence Donohue-Greene for his assistance.



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