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Brilliant Corners | The Nation

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Brilliant Corners

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At New York City's Birdland this past March, pianist Andrew Hill accepted Playboy's Artist of the Year Award, smiled for the cameras and then, without a single announcement, spent an hour filling the room with his distinctive, slightly deteriorating brand of pianistic alienation. On the title track from his recent Time Lines, Hill pounded away on an F major chord while drummer Eric McPherson thudded swirling rim shots with a meandering calypso backbeat. Hill's attack definitely swung, but in a perplexing direction: Unlike Herbie Nichols, Randy Weston and other Monk-inspired pianists, Hill left fewer rhythmic and harmonic signposts, striking when you'd least expect. Perhaps aware that he was leaving listeners adrift after accepting a plaque from Hefner's empire, Hill, who never plays anyone's standards but his own, began playing the opening motif from Meyer and Caeser's 1928 "Crazy Rhythm." The drums played against the piano and the bass repeated an off-kilter Latin beat, but Tin Pan Alley was somewhere buried in the subtext:

About the Author

David Yaffe
David Yaffe is the author, most recently, of Bob Dylan: Like A Complete Unknown (Yale). 

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Crazy rhythm, here's the doorway.
I'll go my way, you'll go your way.
Crazy rhythm, from now on
We're through.

Hill's playing wasn't up to his 1960s peak--it was actually rougher than on the CD--but it was better to be honored belatedly than not at all. Many rapt audience members were trying hard to follow the clangor, nodding their heads and trying to take it in. It was a clever moment, a rare nod to accessibility in an extremely opaque evening.

In a break from critical orthodoxy, I pondered the fine line between complexity and incoherence. Sometimes Hill pounded the keys with purpose. Other times, he seemed to be fumbling for the right notes. Crazy rhythm, indeed. The announcement last year that Hill had signed with Blue Note for the third time was a major event in the jazz world, but it was also bittersweet: He was battling cancer without health insurance and needed the money only a major label could offer, composing and playing furiously through his illness and treatment. But the fuss and awards surrounding Hill's recent deal were really all because of what he did during his first stint on the label beginning in 1963.

Back then, Hill was 21 and telling everyone that he was a Haitian protégé of the neoclassical composer Paul Hindemith. In fact, he was a native Chicagoan whose studies with Hindemith were more like an ad hoc correspondence course; the fledgling Hill approached the eminent composer after a performance, the two men exchanged some letters and Hindemith died the year Hill got his record deal. Hill's biographical discrepancies continued. Various sources credit him with a PhD in musicology from Colgate, but it turned out that Colgate never offered that degree to anyone. Jazz musicologist Lewis Porter did some investigation on the matter a few years ago, and a Colgate professor sent Porter an e-mail from Hill, who said that he didn't want credit for something he didn't do and added that jazz critics don't do enough of their own research and should do everything possible to stop the lie. Of course, Hill's first few years of recording are worth more than a stack of doctorates, and even if he didn't write a dissertation of his own, he certainly provides enough material for someone else's.

Is Hill a genius, a trickster or a con artist? To ask the question is to answer it: all of the above. Tall tales have long been a part of the greatest jazz legends. Who really believed that Louis Armstrong was born on July 4, 1900, or that Jelly Roll Morton invented the music? Behind the self-mythology, though, the music is even harder to unravel. Following Hill's biographical claims may be tricky, but following the transcriptions of his compositions is even more baffling, and this is a difficulty he can own. In 1963 the Beatles hadn't yet conquered America; free jazz was still relatively new and divided the lines of the Blue Note roster. Saxophonist-composer Joe Henderson was still carrying the torch for accessible swing, digging into the Latin groove that took Stan Getz to the pop charts. Multi-reedist Eric Dolphy was arguing with his leader, Charles Mingus, on the bandstand through musical dialogues, and he pushed further into the harmonic stratosphere with every transgressive wail. Tony Williams, then a 17-year-old wunderkind who had picked up a seat in Miles Davis's quintet after seeming to memorize every beat thudded by Philly Joe Jones, was unable to ignore something freer rumbling from the harmolodic territory of Ornette Coleman and the rattle of Billy Higgins's high hat. Amazingly, Henderson, Dolphy, Williams and Hill, along with trumpeter-arranger Kenny Dorham and bassist Richard Davis, all came together on March 21, 1964, to record Point of Departure, and in a single day Hill made a jazz masterpiece. It was his fourth album for Blue Note, and the first three, Black Fire, Smokestack and Judgement, had also been recorded in single-day sessions in the previous four months of frenetic activity. The recording would also be Dolphy's last studio session; that June, he would be dead at 36, and everything that he recorded in those last few months would be scrutinized and pondered in search of a future jazz never quite had.

Point of Departure routinely makes critics' all-time-favorite jazz album lists, but Hill's compositions are rarely played on the bandstand or heard from conservatory practice rooms. A look at the chart for "Refuge," the first track on the album, explains why. On the recording, Dorham and Hill are playing the melody, while Henderson throws in an empathetic harmony and Dolphy offers an alto dissent. Somehow, Hill's composition unites these three divergent styles, with Henderson and Dorham playing the changes and Dolphy literally going off the charts. Hill's jagged comping and peripatetic lines are anchored in a Monkian percussive hiding place, a refuge of sorts. But the chart itself offers less of one. It's harder to play than anything by Wayne Shorter, who made his own Blue Note debut the same year. Shorter, who can be heard from conservatory to conservatory and bandstand to bandstand, may have earned the nickname Mr. Weird, but his madness made a kind of divine sense; no one else could have thought of tunes like "Juju" or "Speak No Evil," but once you learn them, they are indelible. Hill doesn't let you in nearly as easily. Look at the chart, lose your place, start over and marvel at those who can do it well; improving on the album is impossible anyway. The track that followed was named by Frank Wolff "New Monastery" as a nod to Thelonious Monk, but Monk's terrain is a much less difficult path to follow. You hear Monk in Hill's attack, but the harmonic stratosphere is something more dense and even more strange. "New Monastery" wasn't Hill's title anyway. He once said that everything he ever wrote came out of a Kenny Drew blues motif he heard once--but then, Hill has said many things.

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