Jazz has been described as “the sound of surprise”, and that’s as good a definition as I’ve ever heard. After all, the “syncopation” that sits at the center of jazz rhythm is best defined as “surprise”, and improvisation—jazz’s great credo—is nothing if not the active assertion that the next note has not yet been defined.
In which case pianist Andrew Hill is master magician, a slight-of-hand artist who works close: showing the ball, then moving it to another hand and showing it again, and then—poof!—it’s gone. Surprise.
Since 1963-64, when he recorded a string of three brilliant albums for Blue Note (Black Fire, Smokestack, and Point of Departure), Mr. Hill has been the most deft avant-garde artist in jazz. His music never sounds forbidding or “ugly” or random (and, indeed, it is none of those things), yet it manages to incorporate significantly left-of-center ideas with apparent logic. Mr. Hill has always found a way to make atonality, free rhythmic feeling and angular melody into music that still moves dramatically, telling a story that most listeners want to stick around to hear. Put another way, he hides his “difficulty” in compulsion and swing, making challenging music that doesn’t tax a listener’s patience.
After his great ‘60s albums, Mr. Hill did what most uncompromising jazz musicians had to do in the wake of Sgt. Pepper and Electric Ladyland—tied himself to academia obscuranta until the funky smoke cleared. In the late ‘80s, he made a promising comeback on the “new” Blue Note, fronting a group featuring the then-very-young Greg Osby on alto. These discs (Eternal Spirit and But Not Farewell) proved that a quarter century had not dulled Mr. Hill’s sense of adventure and form. After another hiatus, Mr. Hill returned again on the Palmetto label with Dusk, a recording that consciously sought to recapture the unusual sextet sound from 1964’s Point of Departure and emphatically succeeded. It was perhaps the first terrific jazz recording of the new millennium.
All of which is to say: describing the new Andrew Hill album Time Lines as a “comeback” is surely wrong as rain. Yet what else can you say? First, Mr. Hill is back at Blue Note—a good sign for everyone involved. Second, though his recent Palmetto releases have been sure-footed and mature, Time Lines has some mischief about it—which harkens back to Point of Departure in essential ways. And, finally, Mr. Hill has composed and devised a program that seems to glance behind and ahead at the same time—which suggests that he knows he’s somehow “returning” even though he is a guy who generally doesn’t look back.
In his Time Lines front line, Mr. Hill has merged past and present. The trumpeter is Charles Tolliver—a veteran of bands old and new who brings a blue lyricism to the most “out” tunes on the record. The reed player is Greg Tardy, a young cat who can play (and does play) either side of the fence—waxing lyrical on clarinet, tearing off rhythmic honks on tenor, or blowing fast and facile up and down the modes. With a rhythm section that can play in any time it chooses (Eric McPherson’s drums and John Hebert’s bass) and several at once, the group is fully multidirectional.
Take the title track, built on a three-note melody in which the last tone is stuttered (boo-dah but-but-but-but-but . . .), followed by a three note descending resolution. It could hardly be more simple—reminiscent of Abdullah Ibrahim’s stately melodies but laid out in 11/8 time—yet it generates an infinitely complex set of improvisational possibilities. Mr. Hill approaches the task with great attention to the stuttered note, using it as a motif from which he strays in various clusters and Monkish shards. Mr. Tardy takes tonal risks, rasping his voice and straining at the upper register between bouncy Ornette-ish lines. Mr. Tolliver weighs in third, approaching the tune lyrically, with attention to the descending figure, to the possibility of fanfare in the simplicity and with a sputtering affection for the repetition again. It’s the kind of jazz that makes you feel that you too could pick up a horn and improvise, so plain is it that this kind of music-making is a kind of play, a romp in the park.
But, usually, a dark romp. “Ry Round 1”, which is performed in two different versions, is a herky-jerky theme for trumpet and bass clarinet that spins out from a plunging blue interval. The second rendition, in which the rhythm section plays in 9/4 time as if it were a waltz, makes you want to jump out of your skin with edge, while the “straight” version still suggests Dolphy-esque drunken walking. “Malachi” (which opens the disc in a quintet arrangement and ends it as a piano solo) is a tender, mournful ballad that allows Mr. Hill to showcase his most rhapsodic playing. Mr. Tardy’s clarinet solo blossoms from the chords with unusual care and beauty.
All of these examples should make clear that the Andrew Hill agenda remains one of inviting challenge. Never satisfied to lay down a boogaloo groove or some plain 4/4 swing, Mr. Hill here carries on the best tradition of jazz from the 1960s: slyly blending freedom with intelligent structure to create music that floats free of cliché or “style”. It is Mr. Hill’s great achievement that he makes this an act of invitation rather than alienation—so his music, and Times Lines specifically, pulls listeners into an act of daring.
The news for Andrew Hill has not all been good. In July 2004 he was diagnosed with cancer. But this music—like all his generous output—is so filled with exuberance as to suggest that the future is something to embrace. When his fingers dance, Andrew Hill is a cure for many ills.