Four albums which encompass pianist Andrew Hill’s creativity.

Andrew Hill – The Complete Remastered Recordings on Black Saint and Soul Note [TrackList follows] – CAM/Black Saint/Soul Note BXS 1039, CD 1: 40:32, CD 2: 42:06, CD 3: 48:10, CD 4: 43:46 [11/13/15] [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

(CD 1: Faces of Hope, 1980. Andrew Hill – piano)
(CD 2: Strange Serenade, 1980. Andrew Hill Trio: Hill – piano; Alan Silva – bass; Freddie Waits – percussion)
(CD 3: Verona Rag, 1988. Hill – piano)
(CD 4: Shades, 1987. Andrew Hill Trio and Quartet: Hill – piano; Clifford Jordan – tenor saxophone; Rufus Reid – bass; Ben Riley – drums)

Pianist and composer Andrew Hill (d. 2007) was a very individualistic artist who conceived a distinctive jazz vernacular which employed and combined free jazz elements, chromatic components and modal moments. Hill typically gets branded as an avant-garde musician; yet his music (compositions and long-form improvisations) do not mirror the free dissonance of others pigeonholed as avant-garde or free jazz creators, such as Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor and similar musicians. Although Hill was a stalwart performer and a noted educator, his standing was often as someone only known by other, like-minded jazz players, and he did not have wide recognition. His most-mentioned recordings were for the Blue Note label, spanning most of the 1960s and a dozen LPs. But in the 1980s, Hill released four explorative albums for the Italian Soul Note imprint, and that’s the impetus of this remastered box set.

This package starts with the 40-minute Faces of Hope (from 1980), which was Hill’s 23rd record. The solo piano venture features three Hill originals and an interpretation of a Lee Morgan tune. Hill’s extended improvisations sometimes have a darting demeanor (for example, the 5:30 re-imagining of Morgan’s “Ceora”). At other times, Hill is spare and spatial, especially on the opening track, the 15-minute excursion, “Rob It Mohe,” which uses bottom-note stabs, repeating phrases in the higher scales, and a slowly intensifying movement, from hesitant to active. Unlike most jazz, Faces of Hope is not marked by the blues, or New Orleans influences. Occasionally, Hill’s dissension borders on contemporary classical music due to certain melodic intermezzos. The CD’s second half comprises two related improvisations, the 15:32 “Bayside 1” and the 4:31 “Bayside 2.” Both have reiterating, rhythmic pulses and a reclusive and ruminating characteristic. This is a solo piano record which demands committed listening.

Hill’s other 1980 Soul Note project was the 42-minute trio outing, Strange Serenade, which put Hill with bassist Alan Silva (who had a history with Cecil Taylor) and drummer Freddie Waits (a busy NYC percussionist whose résumé included Sonny Rollins, Jackie McLean and many more). The four prolonged pieces are free as can be, but not strictly solo after solo. In fact, there is no traditional soloing as such, but rather enhanced interaction, both rhythmically and melodically. The CD commences with the 15:29 “Mist Flower,” which can be uncomfortable to try to follow, since there is no central focus and no center to hold on to. Silvia switches between pizzicato and arco bass. Waits’ engages all aspects of his drum kit, from ride cymbals to toms, sometimes shifting to avant-garde, metallic noises and other times to African cadences. Hill’s attitude to his piano is multi-varied; he alters from purely rhythmic and percussive instances to longitudinal single-note occurrences. The title track is no serenade, but aptly fits the other part of the tune’s appellation. This oddly-constructed number (at 7:04, also the shortest) relies on a hyperactive gait, where Silva bows like a man on fire or creates a cavalcade of notes. Waits is equally frenetic, again applying his know-how to everything he has. The album’s latter half is notably different. The nine-minute “Reunion” embraces lyricism and swings, albeit in a nonlinear way. The tender, almost 11-minute “Andrew” is a tribute penned by Hill’s wife, organist Laverne Hill. Silva’s evocative walking bass lines set the tone, while Hill blends tentative, single notes with brief, snappish chordal runs.

The final two CDs both date to the same Italian 1986 studio time. Hill taped Shades as a trio and quartet undertaking, but felt he still had more he wanted to artistically express, so immediately went back into the studio and completed the 48-minute solo piano LP, Verona Rag, which consists of three Hill originals and two covers. On Verona Rag, Hill begins with the nearly 15-minute “Retrospect,” a showcase for his piano technique, infused with the spirit (if not the actual style) of Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell. Hill has a colored looseness as he bends from harmonic segment to harmonic segment. There is no sense of being adrift, even though Hill progresses without plan or preamble. The nearly 17-minute title track is outstanding. Hill wrote this in 1980 to honor the northern Italian town he visited with his wife. “Verona Rag” acts as a vehicle for Hill’s pointed melodies, sharp phrasing and concentrated layers. Listeners may not notice, but gospel has a place in the structure, alongside the obvious Joplin motifs. This broad-minded opus has flashes of dissonance, but more often it adopts a responsive vibe with a rich foundation of jazz and pre-jazz quotations. The terser “Tinkering” (only 4:25) has a comparable posture, with eloquent melodic developments, but no ragtime inclinations. The album’s decidedly melodic spin continues on the two covers. Jimmy Van Heusen’s “Darn that Dream” contains striking touches and accents, while John Lewis’ “Afternoon in Paris” is revised into a more complex but still intimate solo piano experience. Hall presents a flexible stride which alludes to Lewis’ main theme, but is not beholden to it.

The 43-minute, six-track Shades returns to Hill’s investigatory facets (he also wrote all of the material) but also includes much melodic and lyrical properties. Hill’s group consists of tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan, bassist Rufus Reid and drummer Ben Riley (most famous for a short stint with Monk). This is an interesting session, since Hill amalgamates his freer-jazz traits with up-front jazz, while Jordan (who is not heard on all of the tunes) maintains a straightforward, post-bop mindfulness. The lead-in cut, “Monk’s Glimpse,” shares some of Monk’s advanced use of space and rhythm. Jordan offers warmth to this somewhat angular arrangement, which complements the rhythm section’s sideways edge. Bop is prevalent on the upbeat “Chilly Mac,” which hearkens to the classic ‘60s Blue Note era. Jordon’s soloing is reminiscent of his own recordings, and has the style of something from the Kennedy years rather than the Reagan decade. Jordan is also on the 7:28 piece, “Domani,” (Italian for “tomorrow”), which flits quickly along with a contemporary flicker, particularly noticed when Hill is at the forefront (and Jordan steps out for a prolonged spell), as well as the fluctuating bass and drums. The most emotional item is the lengthy, 14-minute ballad “La Verne,” a thoughtful accolade for Hill’s wife. Jordan performs one beautiful verse after another, while Hill, Silva and Waits furnish sublime backing. Later, Hill takes the spotlight and sustains the lingering melodic emphasis. Jordan and Hill unite together to bring the picturesque piece to a finale. “La Verne” is a standard-in-waiting ready to be discovered.

For the most part, the remastering accentuates the music, although there is some surface noise heard during Verona Rag. Not having access to the 1988 LP, it isn’t clear if this was also a problem on the first pressing. As usual with the Black Saint/Soul Note reissue boxed sets, the packages are lean. No new historical notes; and CDs are stored in simple, thin sleeves, which are housed inside a cardboard box. Fortunately, the original liner notes are intact on the back side of each sleeve (but a magnifying glass is mandatory for reading). Hill fans should get a lot of enjoyment from this collection, since the music ranges from exploratory to traditional jazz leanings, encompassing Hill’s musical honesty.


CD 1: Rob It Mohe, Ceora, Bayside 1, Bayside 2.
CD 2: Mist Flower, Strange Serenade, Reunion, Andrew.
CD 3: Retrospect, Darn that Dream, Verona Rag, Tinkering, Afternoon in Paris.
CD 4: Monk’s Glimpse, Tripping, Chilly Mac, Ball Square, Domani, La Verne.

—Doug Simpson