Point of Departure is confounding, but it is a text, with heads and solos followed in bop protocol, something that Dolphy's Out to Lunch, recorded in the previous month, defected from more dramatically. Ornette Coleman's Live at the Golden Circle, John Coltrane's First Meditations and Cecil Taylor's Unit Structures would stray further from the written lines. ("Where are you Bud?" wrote Taylor in the liner notes, giving a stream of consciousness shout-out to Bud Powell. Many would have answered, "Far, far away.") Hill would become more accessible on other occasions. "Catta," the lead track from vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson's extraordinary 1965 album Dialogue, is a Hill composition that sounds like a cousin to Joe Henderson's "Recordame," a Latin soul jazz number with a centered groove and a catchy hook. "Catta" was recorded a year and a half after Blue Note artist Lee Morgan made a crossover score with a similarly infectious Latin composition, "The Sidewinder," which hit No. 25 on the Billboard chart and made it all the way to a Chrysler commercial in the 1965 World Series. If Hill had written more tunes like "Catta," maybe he wouldn't have asked each reader of Down Beat to send him a dollar the following year; it would be four decades before Playboy paid its respects.
Ironically, some of the most accessible Hill material from his first Blue Note run didn't make it out of the vault until recently. Blue Note realized it was sitting on collectors' items and belatedly released Hill's work from the end of his first run with the label. This, too, is a case of better late than never. Passing Ships topped many jazz critics' lists for 2003, even though it was deemed unreleaseable in 1969. The sessions that Hill recorded that year with strings are especially noteworthy: haunting, lovely, complex and without a trace of Third Stream preciousness. "Illusion," from the Mosaic Select box set, is driven by the slow, steady, swinging march of Mickey Roker's drums. Hill, who had jumped from chord to chord on the compositions that made his reputation, slowed down for a simpler progression. Bennie Maupin blows some tasteful tenor lines with a kind of Lester Young-inspired melodic economy, and the strings are arranged enough for chamber and loose enough for jazz; the cello tugs and takes you in deeply. The rest of the sessions are like a dream. They sound nothing like the commercially viable jazz of 1969--they might as well have been recorded in a different century from the one that produced Miles Davis's Bitches Brew, and it's certainly a better jazz session. But Hill never made the commercial crossover, just the counterintuitive, deft ones that spelled career suicide--until recently, that is.
Another pianist who made his Blue Note debut in the early 1960s, Herbie Hancock, was more of a playa. Like Hill, Hancock was a Chicago native who had a classical connection (he played with Rafael Kubelik and the Chicago Symphony when he was 11). But Hancock also had a Top 10 hit early on with "Watermelon Man" (not his own version, but still), and while honing an original, complex and deep pianism always had his eye on what the popular audience wanted. It would be hard to imagine Hill pitching Bose speakers or tinkling impressionistic lines behind Christina Aguilera on the Grammy Awards. Two roads diverged.
Hill spent the next three decades paying dues. In the liner notes to his From California With Love (Artists House, 1979), Hill wrote, "At the zenith of my Blue Note recordings, I found that fame and fortune were not my reward, but fame and poverty. This was hard to believe, for I had seen artists like Miles Davis, Maynard Ferguson, Oscar Peterson, etc., pass through Chicago. They weren't surviving but living." Yet Hill wouldn't make concessions to live a little better, and he preferred teaching in California prisons to playing on pop sessions. Even a second run for Blue Note in 1989 and 1990 didn't last beyond two albums, both regrettably out of print, and somewhere along the line his piano technique, never especially smooth, became less consistent. You weren't exactly sure if that was how he meant to hit those keys or if he missed them. But he achieved some triumphs late in his career, some wholly distinct from that initial burst of greatness from 1963 to 1967. Dusk (Palmetto, 2000) was originally conceived as a tribute to Point of Departure for a gig at New York's Knitting Factory. But the resulting CD sounded nothing like the album that inspired it. It was a musical interpretation of Jean Toomer's 1923 masterpiece Cane, with a title alluding to the opening stanza of Toomer's Harlem Renaissance classic:
Her skin is like dusk on the eastern horizon.
O cant you see it, O cant you see it,
Her skin is like dusk on the eastern horizon..
. When the sun goes down
The CD matched Cane for lyricism with a sharp edge, achieving a quiet beauty the younger trickster of the 1960s didn't quite reach when frantically jumping from chord to chord and interval to interval. The title track, which opens the CD, returns to a dominant groove plucked out on Scott Colley's bass, while the horn lines travel in odd directions and Hill's piano lines give contrapuntal retorts. A Beautiful Day (2002) lives up to its title, even more ambitious than Dusk in its orchestral scope, demanding, powerful and lyrical. Hill and an audience, albeit a specialized one, could finally meet.
Time Lines doesn't quite reach the heights of those two recordings, but it has quiet and subtle powers of its own, even if they didn't make the transition from the recording studio to the stage at Birdland in March. Hill's rough beauty has inspired a generation of younger pianists like Vijay Iyer and especially Jason Moran, who combines a Hill-inspired attack with a Hancock-inspired crossover savvy, and who has identified himself as a Hill disciple, performing in deferential duets with him. But Hill's recent impact has been in the jazz compositional landscape, and his twists and turns now seem less bewildering than they did in that frenetic period forty years ago. Altoist-composer Greg Osby, who performed beautifully on Hill's first reunion sessions with Blue Note, has cited Hill as his greatest influence, and when they played together on The Invisible Hand (2000), it was not only a signal of Hill's return to the label where it all began but a moment when Hill seemed less like an eccentric cult figure and more like an elder statesman. On Hill's "Ashes," that CD's lead track, the chord sequences are still hard to follow, but Hill's softened accompaniment and Osby's breathy alto, complemented by guitarist Jim Hall's lush lines, make it clear that the twenty-first century will finally be a time when Hill's challenging conceptions will go down a little easier, less cryptic but as fascinating as ever. As Hill is enjoying his third act, those rhythms don't sound quite so crazy anymore.