Sunday, November 16, 2014

Andrew Hill: Judgment!

A very under-appreciated pianist and composer, Andrew Hill released a string of excellent recordings for Blue Note in the mid to late 1960s, one of which, the superb Point of Departure has already been highlighted here.

Judgment! was recorded just prior to that album, in early January 1964, and, while it may be more low key, due to the absence of a front-line horn and the use of a vibraphone as a featured solo album, this recording is just as remarkable in highlighting Hill's distinctive composing style, uniformly excellent playing and the amazing band chosen for the album.

It's hard to imagine a better rhythm section at the time than the always-steady and full-sounding bass of the great Richard Davis, another player who has never quite received the recognition he deserves, and the exciting and complex poly-rhythms of the masterful Elvin Jones on drums.

Moreover, in a significant way, the tremendous performance by Bobby Hutcherson on vibes is an additional rhythmic instrument, due to the light percussive sound it provides.  Hutcherson, though, also used his instrument for ambiance and was a masterful soloist, as well.

Hill's composing wasn't known for extremes in ways that other so-called "free" or "avant-garde" stalwarts were, but his subtle experiments with time, harmony and rhythm are, with some dedicated listening, obvious and stunning.

This comes to the fore immediately with the standout "Siete Ocho," a nine-minute masterpiece, the title of which happens to refer to the time signature of 7/8.  The playing is just impressive, starting with Hutcherson's vibes and including Hill's always-absorbing solo work as well as a nice short solo by Davis and a typically explosive excursion on the traps by Jones.

"Flea Flop" was titled by Hill because of the "jumping flea" quality of the melody and has a long and exemplary solo by the leader, some powerful soloing by Jones and Hutcherson's shimmering and echoed vibes providing a strong grounding for the piece.

"Senseless dialogue between people" is how the sing-song melody of "Yokada Yokada" is characterized in its dissonant dueting between the vibes and piano, before Hill unleashes another incredibly understated and brilliant solo that is more directly blues-connected than usual for the leader.

A tribute to the founder and long-time executive of Blue Note, Alfred Lion, "Alfred" is a lush, lyrical and gorgeous ballad that gives Hutcherson an opportunity to shine in soloing and atmospheric accompaniment, while Davis plays beautifully in the upper register and Jones, who was not given as much praise for his brush work as he should have, provides excellent support work on percussion.  As for Hill, his playing is as lyrical and economical as can be.

The title track was inspired by a poem by Hill's wife, Laverne, based on the biblical verse, John 7: 7, which has the famous admonition about casting stones.  The tune starts with some emphatic snare shots by Jones, who then slides effortlessly into a driving groove that was one of his many trademarks, while the band moves into a typically angular Hill theme.  It's hard to overstate just how fluidly and compactly Hill constructs his solos-he's never flashy, but his technique and ideas are highly advanced.  Again, Davis alternates between higher and lower notes and always seems to be in just the right spot to hold the bottom down, while Jones keeps those poly rhythms moving before putting on another drum solo clinic.  Hutcherson offers another great solo before the track ends--this along with "Siete Ocho" is a centerpiece to the album.

Finally, there is the closing "Reconciliation," which Hill identified as being drawn from the unity and harmony developed by the group in the course of creating this amazing music.  Another interesting and characteristically complex Hill theme is played three times before Davis solos to great effect, demonstrating why he was so in demand, as Hutcherson and Jones engage in excellent interplay behind the bassist.  A notable quality to this tune is the abrupt ending before the theme's last note was to be played.

The mid-90s release on CD also features a fine alternate take of "Yokada Yokada."

Judgment! is a true classic, featuring excellent writing and playing by Hill and amazing support from a special band playing at top form and thriving on the structures and environment given them by the leader.  Point of Departure had the benefit of featuring the great Eric Dolphy, but Judgment! as a more intimate record is, in some ways, more unified and consistent in its conception and playing.  It is a highlight of Hill's extensive discography and one of the great jazz records of its time.

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