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Interviews

Andrew Hill: Coming Back Full Circle

By Published: February 27, 2006
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.


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