March was a month to celebrate. It saw the release of Andrew Hill's new album, Time Lines (for his alma mater, Blue Note), and found him leading a powerhouse quintet for four magical nights at Birdland. The visionary's legions of fans gave him a joyous reception in concert, and there is no end of buzz around his latest effort (many questioned the likelihood of his return to music after he was diagnosed with cancer in 2004). To be sure, Hill is back, with an album that deserves close attention, not for the simple fact that it documents the return of a jazz giant to the company that got him off the ground, but rather as an achievement by a man who continues to give wholly of himself in the pursuit of high art.
Time Lines begins and ends with the ethereal ballad "Malachi, a piece written for the late Hill collaborator bassist Malachi Favors, setting the tone for the entire album. The rapport between the players is immediately evident on this track, and as the album progresses, the role of each becomes clearer in Hill's delicate musical scheme. Hill himself plays a relatively supportive role in the proceedings, providing the occasional angular interjection and often sitting out altogether, content to just take it all in.
On the album and in person, the main protagonists are two relative youngsters, multi-reedist Greg Tardy and the incredibly versatile bassist John Hebert. Like the classic Andrew Hill albums of yesteryear, much of the musical propulsion that characterizes his unique sound emanates from the bass chair, and Hebert doesn't disappoint. His buoyant phrases and deeply rooted rhythmic sense, along with Eric McPherson's sensitive drumming, lay the foundation for Tardy to soar on pieces like "Ry Round 2 and "For Emilio and inspire the reemerging master trumpeter Charles Tolliver to recapture the fire that characterized his earlier efforts with Hill and as a leader in his own right. Throughout all this, the distinctive signature of Hill's sound, both as a pianist and writer, is always present, about which any listener will surely agree upon hearing the final solo piano track.
Like the learned sage, Hill sat perched on his throne at Birdland last month as the fruits of his genius swirled in the air around him, smiling almost imperceptibly. Forty-plus years of music had come and gone, and the master could think of nothing more appropriate than to smile at the beauty he had created.
Malachi; Time Lines; Ry Round 1; For Emilio; Whitsuntide; Smooth; Ry Round 2; Malachi.
Andrew Hill: piano; Greg Tardy: tenor saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet; Charles Tolliver:
trumpet; John Hebert: bass; Eric McPherson: bass.
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