Nels Cline – New Monastery – “A view into the music of Andrew Hill”  Cryptogramophone CG 130, 73:41 ****1/2:

(Nels Cline-guitar, effects / Bobby Bradford-cornet / Ben Goldberg-clarinets / Andrea Parkins-accordion, effects / David Hoff-contrabass / Scott Amendola-drumset, percussion / Alex Cline-percussion, on tracks 5 and 7)

For almost the last 50 years, Mr. Andrew Hill has been one of the most preposterously under-recognized figures in jazz.  His 1964 “Point Of Departure” comfortably rests in any well-conceived top 20 jazz records of all time list, while three or four others could easily be included in the top 150.  If you’re going to do a dedication record, it’s certainly not a bad idea to utilize an unconventional instrument lineup to attack composer/pianist Hill’s uniquely singular compositions.  

This is what leader Nels Cline has done, while also electing NOT to include piano – an unquestionably appropriate decision.  Hill’s quirkily gifted keyboard work within his own creations is just too impossibly demanding.  So what we get is guitar, cornet, accordion, clarinets, contrabass, drumset, percussion and effects.  Accordion?  Effects?  Now that’s cool!  The closing track “Combustion”  reminds me of the Brian Eno/Phil Manzanera 70s glory days. when they brought so much electronically altered experimental sounds to Quiet Sun and 801 (two jazz/rock fusion outfits from Britain that set one heckuva standard). Now that is a supreme compliment to the authority, creativity and vision of this whole ensemble.  They go from awesomely layered contributions in Hill’s often-somber works to an almost-celebratory finish. Cline’s approach to portions of the material stretches, squeezes and otherwise processes distinctive sounds from the guitar and accordion. Perhaps this is his equivalent to Hill’s originality through his initial learned and intellectualized arrangements, which cast such unusual interaction between his band members. Cline did not have access to the written scores, but rather went by ear and feel.The overriding theme was to maintain the spirit of the compositions while challenging all to make their voices heard within them.  This has succeeded magnificently.

The disc actually has 12 tunes, but songs segue into others as suites of  2 or 3 numbers, resulting in only seven distinct tracks.  This alone is another fascinating approach.  When the driving force behind the album is a Hendrix/Jeff Beck- influenced guitarist who is currently a member of the rock band Wilco, while also a master of the conventional modern jazz voicings such as Larry Coryell – we can expect the end product to be something different.  We certainly get it with his sonic variances stuffed with creativity from wildly varying inspiration.  Andrea Parkins’ accordion is astonishingly fitting, ex-Ornette Coleman colleague Bobby Bradford delivers some simply dynamite cornet utterings and drummer Scott Amendola (with assistance from percussionist Alex Cline on two tracks) propels things like it might be the world’s last session. Ben Goldberg offers some superb clarinet, especially on bass clarinet when at times he sounds Dolphy-esque.  Particularly impressive to me is contrabassist Devin Hoff, who very skillfully sets the ideal  tone and time for so many compositions   He provides the perfect foundation throughout.  Every member is completely impressive, and the scintillating Bradford really demands to be recorded more often!

Track one opens with some barely thematic doodling between guitar and bass clarinet before kicking in with “Pumpkin” using the full band. Track two is a peon to Mr. Hill which is fully fitting and exquisitely realized.  The massive 23:32 track three is a marvelous tribute with an incredible amount of layers and depth. Track four speeds things up again featuring some mighty Bradford cornet before addressing Lee Morgan’s “Rumproller” in the manner that Hill might well have approached it.  I’m sure the “great one” would smile at the antics of the cornet, clarinets and atmospheric guitar on this one.  Track five reveals the similarity of Hill’s writing to modern classical composers.  The piece is presented in a kind of chamber orchestra mold – yes, it would not be inappropriate to consider Hill to be a master modern composer of both jazz and classical music.  Just beautiful cornet and bass clarinet within the framework. The “Reconciliation”- portion of track six offers up some excellent support to Cline’s extended guitar explorations. It then segues into “New Monastery” with superb cornet playing off what is probably Goldberg’s best bass clarinet work here.  Along with Cline and Hoff they revisit the theme before an unworldly accordion feature-driven section with wind instrument blips before restating the melody in conclusion.  Again, the disc closes with the rock-out track seven where everyone lets it all hang out.  It’s amazing that Hill’s work would even lend itself to this type of treatment, but just as amazing that Cline would recognize the possibility.

All in all, this is easily one of the best “dedication” CDs I’ve ever heard.  It is a killer combination between the profound creativity of Hill, matched by the experimental creativity and imagination of Cline.  Supplement this with the pure talent of the players and this release reflects the only way such a project should be approached. Love it, admire it, deconstruct it, reconstruct it, rejoice in the spirit of it and then unleash it’s uniqueness.  I’m astounded by this one!  I bet that long term formal orchestra ticket-holders would appreciate the scoring and solos as well.  This is a titanic tribute to a titan of modern music.  Mr. Hill’s deserved historical (and ongoing) stature as both composer and pianist should be properly appreciated as the output of a true 20th century master.  This release will help, but anyone with even a minimal understanding of the potential of this great art form would serve themselves well by checking this one out and then proceeding to Hill’s incredible recorded canon.

Tracklist:  McNeil Island / Pumpkin, Not Sa No Sa, No Doubt / 11/8 / Dance With Death, Yokada Yokada . The Rumproller, Dedication,  Reconstruction / New Monastery, Compulsion

– Birney K. Brown