Monday, February 25, 2013

Andrew Hill: Point of Departure

For some inexplicable reason, Andrew Hill remains a largely overlooked pianist and composer, whose 1960s works for Blue Note Records are among the best of that era.  Maybe it's that he wasn't a terribly flashy player, but instead used his keyboard work in the service of the piece and of the remarkable musicians who appear on this record.  It might also be that, as jazz was starting to enter the so-called "free jazz" era, Hill's work was not nearly as adventurous as those of the "avant garde" musicians.  This may be contested by some, but, in a way, Hill's directions remind me a bit of what Miles Davis was starting to do at about the same time with his "second great quintet."  That is, the overall direction wasn't as overtly revolutionary as what Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Albert Ayler and others were creating, but there was a quieter transformation of how freedom was being utilized in an ensemble setting.

The common linkage between Davis and Hill was the rhythmic underpinnings and innovations of the very young Tony Williams, the then-18 and 1/2 year old drum wizard whose sense of openness in time-keeping allows everyone to move more freely in their solos. 

The horn section was an interesting combination of Kenny Dorham, Joe Henderson, and Eric Dolphy.  Dorham, a hard bop notable on trumpet, plays with a coolness that pairs well with Hill's understated way of accompanying the soloist.  It might be telling that Dorham, whose experience of playing with Coltrane and Taylor in 1958's Hard Driving Jazz, even when those two hadn't gotten anywhere near the freer expressions that came later, was, by all accounts, a miserable one, does much better here with Hill. 

Tenor sax player Henderson was something of a newcomer, having mustered out of Army service in 1962, but quickly gained a foothold as a leader for Blue Note and a side musician for Dorham, pianist Horace Silver, and trumpeter Lee Morgan.  He also had a hard bop sound generally, but also moved into some freer territory.  Later, he recorded with McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock and on Alice Coltrane's masterpiece Ptah the El-Daoud, soon to be profiled here.

Then, there's the phenomenal Eric Dolphy, featured on his usual mix of alto sax, flute and bass clarinet and whose unusual groupings of notes and angular, visceral playing is a contrast to Dorham.  Dolphy's sound is so distinctive and foreceful that his solos totally stand out, even as Dorham and Henderson perform excellently in the overall context of the band.

This leaves the rhythm section of the great Richard Davis on bass and Williams.  Davis, whom this blogger had a chance to see lead his own band at Catalina Bar and Grill in Los Angeles some twenty years ago,  was so highly regarded by Hill that the leader called him "the greatest bass player in existence" and a master of tone, technical ability and creativity.  Hill even noted that he wrote piano parts with Davis in mind so that the bassist could "pick out the notes he wants to use."  Davis played on Dolphy's monumental Out to Lunch! recorded for Blue Note less than a month before Point of Departure and on many other great jazz records.  He also, however, appeared on recordings by Van Morrison (the sublime Astral Weeks, also to be covered here), Bruce Springsteen and Paul Simon.

As for the leader, he has great lyrical ideas, a masterful command of tempo and beat, and innovative, if not (again) overly grandiose, solo concepts.  And, with such a stellar band on hand and with great pieces like the opened "Refuge," "New Monastery" (obviously referring to the master, Thelonious Monk), and the beautiful and haunting closing ballad, "Dedication," he had the perfect settng in which to create his masterwork.

Already using the state-of-the-art studio and engineering talents of Rudy van Gelder, this album benefitted further from a 1998 remastering by van Gelder for what is known as the RVG Edition.  Extra bonuses include alternate takes of "New Monastery," "Flight 19" and "Dedication."

Hill made other excellent albums for Blue Note in the mid-60s including Compulsion!!!! and Black Fire, but Point of Departure is the pinnacle and easily one of the great albums of the era or any other in jazz.  It's a shame that Hill, who died in 2007, is still  so under-recognized.

Andrew Hill:  Point of Departure (Blue Note, 1964)

1.  Refuge  12:12
2.  New Monastery  7:00
3.  Spectrum  9:42
4.  Flight 19  4:10
5.  Dedication  6:40

1998 remastered edition bonus tracks

6.  New Monastery (alternate take)  6:08
7.  Flight 19 (alternate take)  3:45
8.  Dedication (alternate take)  7:01

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