Pianist and composer Andrew Hill is an enigmatic figure in the history of jazz. He’s a bona fide giant who produced a clutch of classic albums for Blue Note in its ’60s hey-day, including the all-time masterpiece Point of Departure. His writing is idiosyncratic, uniquely recognisable, and perhaps just a little cerebral and difficult to absorb. Words like ‘sombre’ and ‘moody’ get bandied around with depressing regularity. It’s perhaps this reputation that has meant that — until a recent 21st century resurgence in interest in his music — he has never quite achieved the legendary status he surely deserves as an innovator, a pioneer and a forefather of today’s avant-garde.
So, with all this in mind, it seems utterly right that his music has now been picked up and reinterpreted by a modern maverick — guitarist Nels Cline. Whether lending underground credentials to alt-country-rockers Wilco, laying down uncompromising electro-acoustic experimentation with his own band, the Nels Cline Singers, or as an in-demand collaborator with a massive roster of diverse names from Rambling Jack Elliott to Elliott Sharp, Cline somehow manages to remain entirely himself, combining jazz, rock, and avant-garde moves with a refreshing sense of humour and a lightness of touch.
On this album of reinterpretations of Hill’s music, Cline is joined by the core of the Nels Cline Singers — bassist Devin Hoff and drummer Scott Amendola — as well as Ben Goldberg on clarinet, Andrea Parkins on electric accordion, and Bobby Bradford on cornet. That’s right — in a typical piece of wrong-footing, there’s no piano. Instead, the textures and harmonies of the compositions are carried, for the most part, by the front-line combination of guitar and Parkins’s often otherworldly electric accordion, an instrument that can switch from grunting beast to droning hurdy-gurdy in the space of a few seconds. It’s not the only obvious liberty Cline takes with Hill’s work either: he crams twelve compositions into seven tracks, amalgamating tunes into mini-suites that deconstruct the originals with crunching guitar skronk and interludes of skewed intensity.
Cline’s deconstructions can be disorientating, occasionally making it hard to find the original number buried within, as the tunes whirl through an exhilarating succession of changes. “Not Sa No Sa” starts off with a fusion-y head, all red-hot guitar and roiling drums, before dipping into free, turbulent noise, Ayler-style marching jazz, and super-fast swing with scratchy guitar loops and a crushing forward momentum — and all this in one tune. Elsewhere, Cline gets to show off his underground axe-chops, as on “Compulsion”, which comes across as a huge, noisy slab of monstrous, Sonic Youth-style distorto-rock over big, oblique horn charts and a free-form furnace of bass and drums — plus some extra percussion from brother Alex Cline whipping the whole thing up to near-hysteria.
Sometimes, though, Cline plays it straight, as on an exuberant, almost tongue-in-cheek run through one of Hill’s more straight-ahead groovers, “The Rumproller”. In fact, it’s when Cline’s arrangements show an obvious respect for the source material that he gets his most thrilling results, with the sextet’s unusual instrumentation throwing the singular poise of the compositions into a new light. In an album highlight, Parkins’s accordion drone on “Dance with Death” doomily accentuates Hill’s masterfully funereal chord sequence, turning it into a terrifying, bone-rattling N’awlins voodoo march that’s utterly in the spirit of the piece, but with an extra dimension of lethargic evil quite beyond the original recording’s reach.
Cline has gone to some lengths to stress that this is not your average tribute album, but rather — as the subtitle suggests — a ‘view’ into Hill’s work, taking the originals as starting points for more exploratory excursions. The genius decision here was to choose such a beguiling body of pure, left-field classics as a starting point. Cline probably couldn’t have gone wrong no matter how hard he tried. The bottom line is, if you enjoy high-spirited PoMo shenanigans, and have an ear for timeless jazz composition, you’ll probably dig this album a lot.