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 recordingsBlack Fire
and Point of Departure, to name severalthat, 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 aboutbut I'm happy.
"Before I came back to Blue Note, there was already a beautiful resurgence for mepeople 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 periodI 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.
"When I think about Blue Note, I think, to a certain extent, about traditional values. 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 everytime people have reached for that form, they prosperjust 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 is the peoples' taste. Hype really has nothing to do with it. 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! Maybe not analytically, but it's their music.
Whatever Blue Note's motivations in resigning Hill, Time Lines
is above reproach. Its eight tracks and six tunes ("Malachi and "Ry Round appear in two configurations apiece) surely rank among Hill's best recorded work. Best of all, it feels like an albumthere's a rich variety to the compositions and the album sequencing, with the two "Malachis bookending the tracks, has an elegant balance.
"A lot of that was Michael Cuscuna's idea, he nods. "But a lot of it was sort of following the shape of the old Blue Note recordsthey'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.
When asked to name his favorite of all his recordings, Hill shakes his head. "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.
With the release of the year's best contender Time Lines
, his upcoming performances here and abroad and new challenges like his string quartet composition, Hill's probably not got much time to bask in past glories anyway. So he's doing finebut what about jazz music itself? How's he think it's doing?
"I think it's better than than it's been in 20 or 30 years, he says without hesitation. "Like I said, a certain element of the black music was lost. Once jazz wasn't supported by the corporations, but it breathed better; it was more naturally selected by the peoplewho they liked, who they didn't. But now, we're dealing with a digital revolution... [and] younger musicans are now listeningthey 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 musicans 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.
He pauses and thinks it over. "The only thing I'm worried about is places like the MacArthur Foundation are looking for young jazz artiststhey don't want to give a grant to anyone over 40. 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 incrediblepeople 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 topwhich is a conversation piece and an argument. But anytime you talk about a top, he grins, "you sort of justify the so-called lower levels, so you've got places like the 55Bar, all these places around now for musicians to play in. It sort of reminds me of the '50s. So I think this is a good period, if the other hands don't put their fingers in the pie too much.
After decades as a performing artist, does he feel his playing has changed over the years?
"It has changed in a way, Hill allows. "But in another sense, it hasn't. 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. Now, it's like coming back full circle and that's interesting to me. Recommended Listening:
· Andrew Hill - Black Fire (Blue Note, 1963)
· Andrew Hill - Judgement! (Blue Note, 1964)
· Andrew Hill - Point of Departure (Blue Note, 1964)
· Andrew Hill - Dance with Death (Blue Note, 1968)
· Andrew Hill - Strange Serenade (Soul Note, 1980)
· Andrew Hill - Time Lines (Blue Note, 2006)