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Andrew Hill: Blue Black

John Kelman By

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After releasing no less than thirteen albums on Blue Note from 1963-69, pianist Andrew Hill then seemed to completely drop off the map until 1974, when he entered into another fertile period, making ten records for a variety of labels until 1980, when he would again fall silent. Hill carried considerably less star power then than he did in the 1960s, working, for the most part, with lesser-known players. Three of those ten 1970s recordings were solo efforts, including 1975's Hommage (reissued in 2005 by Test of Time). Still, Hill's 1970s work bears revisiting, and Blue Black, originally released on the Japanese East Wind label and now finally receiving the reissue/remaster treatment from Test of Time, is one of his better efforts from that period.

Saxophonist/flautist Jimmy Vass may be the least recognizable name in a quartet that also features bassist Chris White and drummer LeRoy Williams. Still, his relatively small body of recorded work includes stints with funk/jazzer Charles Earland, free jazz players Sunny Murray and Rashied Ali, and modal post bopper Woody Shaw—a suitably diverse pedigree making him a good match for Hill's cerebral writing, which sits in the crevice between the mainstream and the avant-garde. On soprano, Vass demonstrates a nasal tone similar to Coltrane's, texturally more akin to the Indian double-reed nagaswaram or Tibetan oboe. Timbre aside, he generally favors a more down-the-middle style, with a whispery touch that recalls Charles Lloyd at times.

White's experience ranging from Cecil Taylor to Ramsey Lewis makes him an equally suitable foil, as comfortable on the more complex in-and-out-of-time structure of "Golden Spook and the fiery intensity of the freer "Remnants as he is the surprisingly soul/jazz groove of the title track. And he's an adventurous soloist, with a William Parker-like ability to find the oddest rhythmic choices in the most surprising of places.

Williams—who has the largest discography of the bunch, including recordings with everyone from Jaco Pastorius' Word of Mouth band and Hank Mobley to British pop group Level 42—is another player capable of navigating Hill's penchant for the unexpected. The up-tempo "One For may be in 9/8, but he manages to make it swing effortlessly, despite the slightly disconcerting added beat.

Hill's playing continues to be filled with the idiosyncrasies, quirky and disjointed but at the same time surprisingly supple. Even on the more relaxed "Mist Flower, with Vass' flute creating a softer ambience, Hill finds ways to infiltrate the relative calm with vividly blocky chords and strong phrases that seem to stretch and compress time.

The writing, while nowhere near straightforward, is less structurally complex than what's found on Blue Note records like Judgement! and Dance With Death. Still, Hill manages to stand the middle ground between the extreme left and the far right while ever avoiding a conventional mainstream sound, making Blue Black a recommended disc.


Track Listing: Golden Spook; Mist Flower; Remnants; Blue Black; One For.

Personnel: Andrew Hill: piano; Jimmy Vass: soprano and alto saxophone, flute; Chris White: bass; Leroy Williams: drums.

Title: Blue Black | Year Released: 2005 | Record Label: Test of Time Records


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