Jazz owes a sizeable debt of gratitude to the United States Postal Service. When times were lean and gigs scarce many musicians found financial solace as mail workers. The steady source of gainful employment allowed them to woodshed and compose on the side and offered a refuge away from the often-maddening dynamics of the music business. Charles Mingus in Los Angeles, Joe McPhee in Poughkeepsie, and Buck Hill in D.C. to name just a few.
Buck Hill ranks as probably the least well known of the aforementioned three and his relative obscurity is understandable given his sporadic recording frequency over the years. Even so, his stature on the local Capitol City scene has endured for going on five decades. While it’s true that the JBs were referring to monetary compensation in their slogan-worthy song that serves as the title of this survey, the sentiment seems just as valid when applied to a few Buck Hill Steeplechase platters.
Coming of musical age in the potent '50s, Hill shared the bandstand with the likes of Sonny Stitt, Gene Ammons and Max Roach. He made his recording debut as a member of Charlie Byrd’s band and contributed to the guitarist’s Byrd In the Wind , available on Riverside. Economic pressures and a family to feed forced him to consider other means of income. The flexibility of the post office afforded him room to play on the side.
Balancing a day job as mail carrier, Hill first found time to enter studio under Steeplechase auspices in the spring of '78. The New York rhythm section organized to accompany him was one of the most versatile mainstream units of that era. Kenny Barron, a regular leader in his own right who had already notched tenures with Dizzy Gillespie and Freddie Hubbard among others, supplied the ivories, while Buster Williams held down the bass anchor. Hill’s long-time friend Billy Hart rounded the band out behind drum kit.
This is Buck Hill strikes with the simple declamatory confidence its name would imply. Hill steers clear of an easy clutch of standards and opts instead for a songbook favoring his own compositions. The Jerome Kern evergreen and Sonny Rollins complete the program with the opener “Tokudo,” a product of Williams’ pen. Digging in on the bassist’s blues-infused tune the band quickly finds its stride. Hill rolls out fifteen choruses of ebulliently voiced tenor as the rhythm section sustains a muscular support beneath and around him. His hard-charging confidence and leaping trills are immediately reminiscent of Booker Ervin in full bloom. Barron builds a swirling solo in the wake of Hill’s exhortations and Williams throbbing line supplies steadfast harmonic glue, eventually building into fat knuckled extemporization of its own. Hart carves out an emphatic break of rolls and cymbal shots to cap thing off and prime the band for a joint exit.
The lush ballad strains of “Yesterdays” cool the quartet’s jets a bit and they settle into a mellow groove on the sturdy back of William’s rotund bass. Hill blows velvet smooth through the familiar changes, showing that he’s far more than simple brawn and bluster. Barron’s comping contributes perfect dancing counterpoint and Hart holds down his end with sensitive stick restraint.
A breakneck “Oleo” offers the most thrilling moment of the date, a three-chorus break where the entire rhythm section drops out and Hill goes it alone in a melodic freefall without support of any kind. Uproarious applause that would have greeted such a feat in a concert setting is almost audible in the excitement. The piece also contains some of Hart’s most forceful traps play, cranking up the tension in fine fashion. Remaining tracks are all Hill-hatched starting with the psychedelically titled “I’m Aquarius.” The music belies the trappings of its title and Hill caresses the hope-suffused theme in line with Barron’s elegant, if somewhat sentimental, block chords and Hart’s tidal press roll washes.
“S.M.Y.” and “Two Chord Molly” round out the original program. On the former the band floors the accelerator to a triple-time tempo, but Hill counteracts any flustering stress with a self-assured sally across the dense canvas unfurled by his band mates, soaring to near-stratospheric heights with his wide-arcing phrases. The latter tune explores modal regions under the propulsion of Williams’ infectious ostinato and Hart’s syncopated cymbals. Hill mines rich modal ore from the bottom register of his horn, before blowing the roof off in a wailing tour de force, and Barron traffics in strident, stabbing clusters that take on a vaguely Latin complexion. Williams’ nimble fingers have their finest showing of the session and playfully manipulate pitch and tempo over the track’s ten-minute plus duration. The compact disc reissue appends an alternate take of “S.M.Y.,” rendered at a slightly less frenetic pace, expanding the program to just under an hour.
A span of roughly fifteen months elapsed before Hill found himself back in the studio for Steeplechase. Judging from the chosen program on Scope , he had been busy. All six original album tracks originate from his pen. Further testament to Hill’s consistency of vision, the same rhythm section convenes to realize the compositions. The title track works from a catalytic harmonic base as Hill’s supple, expressive horn devours choruses, leading the way against a bustling background of darting piano, chattering drums and percolating bass. Barron continues the winding melodic momentum with blinding right hand flurries up and down the keyboard before Hill resumes for a resounding finish. The laidback theme of “Ballad Repeter” moves forward on the leader’s swaying legato line, which is further elaborated by Barron’s verdant chordal patterns. Hill opens up the emotional floodgates with an increasingly emphatic statement of the melody that relies a bit too much on rote repetition.
Latin touches frame “Little Bossa,” a tune that doesn’t offer much in the way of rhythmic surprises, but does allow Hill space to once again emote freely with voice-like trills to fine effect. Barron’s luxuriant cascades against the colorful textures of Williams and Hart further separate the piece from its somewhat standard structures. On the contrastingly titled “Beast Beautiful” Hill expounds first, belting out the soulful theme with a strong underlying rhythmic urgency and sense of tenor-hewn muscle. Barron follows with an equally energized run across the keys and even Williams has a moment to own in a solo that makes expert use of his elastic amplification.
Hill’s “The Sad Ones” sits as perhaps the most successful statement of the disc. Constructed on a somber, gradual progression, the piece unfurls on the strength of Hill’s broad, billowy tenor. Affecting a tone akin to Ben Webster, but sans the gauzy rasp, the saxophonist strolls leisurely through a string of choruses as Hart’s brushes and Barron’s gentle comping lights the way. All told, it’s eight plus minutes of pure romantic bliss, touched with tinges of sadness and tender contemplation.
The band revisits the blues for “Funk Dumplin,” another feature for Hill’s virile side as he lets loose with another rock-ribbed display of tenor fortitude. Hart’s style of strong, measured sticking fits magnificently into this sort of setting and he goads the rest of the rhythm section into some of the hardest swinging of the session before breaking away for his own solo spot. Williams’ “Snaps,” left off the original vinyl release, concludes the program with a galvanizing soapbox for the bassist’s harmonically pliant strings.
Over the course of his career, Hill’s number of live engagements vastly outdistanced his recorded discography. They were in fact his bread and butter, as well as the principle forum him to work out fresh ideas and keep his chops honed to rapier sharpness. Steeplechase recognized this dynamic and took the opportunity to tape all three days worth of Hill’s appearances at the North Sea Jazz Festival, his first overseas, at the Hague in 1981.
Sifting through the resulting tapes, producer Nils Winther chose the best material for inclusion on two albums, Easy to Love and Impressions. Both were later combined into a single two-disc package Northsea Festival , as part of the Steeplechase Mid-Price series. Hill’s right hand man Hart was on hand for the gigs while the bass and piano chairs were filled by Wilbur Little and Reuben Brown respectively, both members of his regular D.C. combo.
Easy to Love balances a program of compositions by Hill and Brown with the lone Cole Porter title track. After a muffled count off the quartet starts the journey at a relaxed tempo with Hill blowing almost languidly out front. His tone hardens a shade in ensuing choruses, but the compassionate atmosphere pervades. Little’s walking tone is more warm and fulsome than Williams, but also less agile, while Brown is similarly a step below his predecessor Barron. But both men prove themselves as more than up to the task of affecting emotive, bop-inflected swing.
Brown’s “Little Face,” a delicate ballad shaped from an understated thematic kernel, gives voice to Hill’s raw romanticism. The saxophonist stretches out through a stream of choruses that speak to the strengths of his forthright melodic articulation. Brown handles the harmonic chores before spreading out into carefully constituted locution of his own.
“Mr Barrow,” another ballad by Brown, trawls much the same territory, but the band manages approach it from a fresh vantage. Hill settles in for temperate jaunt through the changes while the rhythm section serves up steady, if slightly servile accompaniment. Brown opts for pretty elaborations over substantive enterprise and it’s a choice that fits with the mood of the piece, if being a bit bromidic in the bargain. “Spaces,” the final entry by the pianist, shirks off earlier timidity and sets the band’s sights on a more athletic variety of swing. Still, Hill and the band sound as if they’re holding back, approximating only a portion of their studio energy from the bandstand. Brown produces a thick carpet of chordal variations, further enhanced by Hart’s shifting, cymbal-guided beats and Hill sails above, enlivening his lines with ardent cries and whispers.
Two Hill originals round out the program. “Brakes,” a stop-time line with clever breaks by drums and bass injects some much welcome variety into the set list. Brown’s restless right hand comes alive under the bright rhythmic surroundings and it finally sounds as if he’s hit his stride. Little steps up for a series of pliant exchanges with the leader, alternating a tight walking gait with stops and suspended accents. Hill just keeps blustering on through, pouring out intoxicating soul from the bell of his horn.
The old friend “Two Chord Molly” serves as a solid closer and Hill reinvents his original tune with an even darker cast. Hart notches up the syncopated cymbal beat and Little’s heavier ostinato creates an advantageous framework the contrasting lucidity of Brown’s rolling chords. This is definitely a program that gets better as it progresses.
Impressions matches a pair of Brown tunes with a trio of standards and has the edge over its companion disc in terms of energy and risk taking. “Alone Together” opens the proceedings seemingly in mid flight. Hill’s tenor floats through the familiar theme, leaving a silver-tongued vapor trail in its wake that quickly combusts in a spate of fiery exhortations. Brown, better captured sonically than before, keeps the tempo cooking with a finely coordinated, harmonically rich solo turn. Later, Hart opens the tune up with a series of tempo transforming drum breaks that coalesce into strapping solo.
“Penn Station,” another from the Brown songbook, traffics in hues of light and dark, moving from an ominous piano prelude into blithesome interplay. After a creative excursion by the composer, Hill sidles to the fore and lets loose with another expository manifesto on melody. Coarsening his tone with register sliding quips and asides, it’s a statement that refuses to be ignored. Little is more methodical in his investigation and Hart crafts supportive commentary to the bassist’s systematic deconstruction of the theme.
“Yesterdays” seemingly deposits the band back behind ballad borders. But it’s a situation that ultimately proves misleading in the best possible way. Hart’s flexible brushes mesh with Little’s pulsing bass to create an ideal cushion for Hill’s steadily intensifying tone. Soon the ballad accoutrements seem a figment of the past and the saxophonist is once again wailing and roaring.
It’s this sort of chameleonic facility, the ability to constantly keep his audience guessing as to where he’ll go next with a tune, that is among Hill’s most arresting strengths. Brown achieves a comparable juxtaposition of smooth and rhapsodic in his following foray while Little weaves strumming flamenco figures from his strings.
The rundown of Coltrane’s “Impressions” is arguably the most surprising choice of the date and it shows most clearly the manner in which Hill straddles old and new in his aesthetic. His take on the tune is decidedly un-Trane like, though the rhythm section gives obvious nods to the Tyner-Garrison-Jones circle of influence. Hill negotiates the theme briefly at the start before laying out and leaving Brown to his most assertive and courageous playing of the set. When he does return, Hill sounds like a man possessed, slaloming through the spiritualized intervals, his tone laced with a smoldering intensity.
Another version of Brown’s “Spaces” completes the package and while an engaging outing, can only seem anti-climatic by comparison. Liner scribe Chris Sheridan mentions Hill’s participation in jam sessions with Archie Shepp and Chico Freeman at the festival. Naturally this brings up the question of whether tapes exist and if so when they might see circulation. Hearing Hill cavort with those two tenor legends would be a welcome treat indeed.
Shortly after his Steeplechase run, Hill returned to his post office duties full time. It took the intervention of the Muse label to coax him out of recording retirement once again and a string of sessions for the label yielded another strong renaissance in his playing. One album, Impulse , even showcased his sound on an instrument new to his arsenal, the clarinet. The dissolution of Muse in the early '90s left him without a label, and since then Hill has concentrated on performing private gigs.
He even maintains a website detailing the particulars of his requirements for hire. On the strength of these Steeplechase sessions and his later work for Muse the time seems ripe for another resurgence.
Retired from his venerable post at the Post Office, Hill just might be amenable to the idea. Any labels out there listening?
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This is Buck Hill
Tracks: Tokudo (8:46)/ Yesterdays (9:34)/ Oleo (5:11)/ I’m Aquarius (6:54)/ S.M.Y. (7:42)/ Two Chord Molly (10:23)/ S.M.Y. (7:16).
Players: Buck Hill- tenor saxophone; Kenny Barron- piano; Buster Williams- bass; Billy Hart- drums. Recorded: March 20, 1978.
Tracks: Scope (5:54)/ Ballad Repeter (6:14)/ Little Bossa (7:19)/ Beast Beautiful (5:36)/ The Sad Ones (8:12)/ Funk Dumplin (5:56)/ Snaps (7:27).
Players: Buck Hill- tenor saxophone; Kenny Barron- piano; Buster Williams- bass; Billy Hart- drums. Recorded: July 8, 1979.
Easy to Love
Tracks: Easy to Love (9:40)/ Little Face (9:37)/ Mr. Barrow (7:58)/ Spaces (7:03)/ Brakes (8:04)/ Two Chord Molly (8:04).
Players: Buck Hill- tenor saxophone; Reuben Brown- piano; Wilbur Little- bass; Billy Hart- drums. Recorded: July 11 & 12, 1981, Holland.
Tracks: Alone Together (9:22)/ Penn Station (11:08)/ Yesterdays (12:08)/ Impressions (8:56)/ Spaces (7:54).
Players: Buck Hill- tenor saxophone; Reuben Brown- piano; Wilbur Little- bass; Billy Hart- drums. Recorded: July 11 & 12, 1981, Holland.