Most times, our exposure to jazz musicians is limited to those who are lucky enough to play jazz as a full-time gig, whether they're supported by a major label, an academic institution or a rich uncle with a love for jazz. Tenor saxophonist Buck Hill, a working-class jazz musician, was never anyone's charity case. Like his late friend and fellow DC jazz artist Shirley Horn, Hill put jazz on the back burner to support his kids. For decades, he worked as a mailman during the day and played jazz when he could at nights. Hill showed enough talent to gig with Miles Davis, Shirley Horn and many others, but it wasn't until the age of 51 that he made his first recording, This Is Buck Hill
That first record revealed a fiery post-bop improviser with a heavy tone, impressive agility and an affinity for modal compositions. Its success led to more recordings for the label, a well-received appearance at the North Sea Jazz Festival in 1981, and Hill's reputation as one of the finest tenor sax players in the Mid-Atlantic states (Hill was a first-call musician for Sonny Stitt whenever he gigged in DC). Yet, through it all, Hill kept his day job as a mailman until he reached retirement.
Relax is Hill's first recording since 2000's Uh-Huh! Buck Hill Live at Montpelier, and the octogenarian shows that he still has the full tone and poise that made his previous recordings so valuable for those in the know. As one might expect, Hill lacks the speed and endurance of earlier years, but he still has enough chops and imagination to put some young bucks to shame. His treatment of "Old Folks is superb balladry on par with later period Dexter Gordon. Especially enjoyable for me is when he revisits his composition "Little Bossa, a song that first appeared on his Steeplechase release Scope. Hill handles the descending chord progressions with aplomb and solos with passion.
"RH Blues and "Relax are fun R&B swingers in the Jimmy Smith style, thanks to the welcome addition of the Hammond organ and crisp, exciting solos by guitarist Paul Pieper. But perhaps the most engaging part of Relax is Hill's three-song tribute to Miles Davis: "Pfrancing, "Milestones and "Flamenco Sketches. On the latter piece, it's fascinating to hear the opening lines of Miles' mute translated through the tenor saxophone, and Hill carries it off with a genuine emotion. Further proof that Buck Hill is one mailman who is first class.
Personnel: Buck Hill: tenor saxophone; John Ozment: Hammond A100; Paul Pieper: guitar; Jerry Jones: