Monday, September 19, 2011

Andrew Hill - Black Fire

The path that's led me from dispassionate appreciation to real enjoyment of jazz has been a serpentine one, coming to like the genre not from its more accessible and well-known forms but backward from things like jazz-rock, the Canterbury scene and from experimental and free improvisation music to the more "out" forms of jazz like free jazz and avant-garde jazz.  I'm not sure if it was repeated exposure to jazz harmony (whose distinctive sound sometimes lacks the pointed directness of the more simplistic harmony employed by most pop music) or just the fact that I found jazz that's more up my alley, but after years of unsuccessfully trying to enjoy the genre, something finally clicked a few months ago and I'm pretty happy about it--there is a whole lot of great jazz out there, even within short 10 year spans (most of the jazz I've taken to seems to come from the 60's).  With jazz's current cultural dominance in an extremely attenuated form and many young people coming to jazz as outsiders, there's potential for jazz to sound samey; extended solo breaks, walking bass lines and a lot of commonality between different players' vocabulary can make it tough to distinguish between songs, styles and players, but repeated acquaintance with a couple of albums and the tenets of the style (most basic jazz compositions feature a melody or "head" that's stated a couple of times, embellished through one or more solos, and repeated again at the end of the song) make it a little easier to view jazz as something decipherable and not just a bunch of honking, noodling, or uncool music fit only for background at a restaurant.  In a suitably backward way, I've already introduced free jazz and jazz fusion on the blog, but have yet to share an album from the post-bop or avant-garde jazz styles.  It's fair to say that in the early 60's the dominant form of jazz was probably hard bop, known for its liveliness, dance-ability and connection to R&B, gospel and blues.  As early as the late 50's, though, there were jazz artists starting to stretch the somewhat conservative boundaries of bop both in their playing and compositions to such an extent that some jazz became different enough that new labels were needed to describe it.  In my understanding, at the time, jazz musicians referred to this trend using the adjective "out," and when free jazz started emerging there were enough people doing it that it was being referred to as "the new thing."  Nowadays we have varying descriptive shades from the mild alterations and expansions on the formula found in post-bop (probably the only time I'm comfortable using "post" as part of a genre title, as it represents changes in the music that really were unprecedented and couldn't be described by existing vocabulary) to the nebulous but definitely more acute abandonment of bop's rules found in avant-garde jazz, to the very "out" and least structured form that would become known as free jazz.  The terms usually aren't mutually exclusive and often don't describe in a hard-and-fast way what the music will sound like, only that it will be different and probably more adventurous than the bop, modal jazz, and cool jazz that preceded it--sounds like the jazz for me! 

On to the actual disc at hand, pianist Andrew Hill's debut for avant-garde and post-bop watershed label Blue Note, 1964's Black Fire.  Though he's best known for his star-studded 1965 album Point of Departure, Hill's career as both a sideman and band leader is  prolific, varied and vibrant--at this point in my fledgling jazz fandom, he might be my favorite jazz artist.  I think it has something to do with his ability to ride the line between edgy and accessible, the wide variety of styles his compositions cover, and the fact that he's got a million great albums.  Black Fire is a perfect example to introduce both avant-garde jazz and post-bop, and I'd venture to say it's a great gateway album through which the uninitiated can get into jazz.

What distinguishes this album most as avant-garde and post bop is definitely Hill's compositions, which are at times irreverent to jazz custom and obviously sound beyond the boundaries of bop.  "Pumpkin" opens the album with an uptempo and edgy bang, teetering between a dark minor theme stated by Joe Henderson on tenor saxophone and a rapid sax/piano run that gives way to a dissonant and playful counterpoint riff between the piano and sax.  Hill takes the first solo, ranging between flitting runs, rapid interval two-note chords, and a lot of inventive and acrobatic maintenance and embellishment of the repeating quarter note triplet riff that punctuates the song every several bars.  As with any good jazz album, the interplay between the players is top notch--in addition to Henderson and Hill, journeymen Roy Haynes and Richard Davis ably hold down the drum stool and double bass, respectively.  Even this early in his band leader discography, Hill's piano style and compositions are heavily rhythmic; his repeating riffs often form poly-rhythmic counterpoint with Haynes' aggressive drum style, leaving Davis to keep the steady pulse uninterrupted.

"Subterfuge" is another driving minor number, with Hill's percussive left hand riffing and two-hand unison riffs stating the melody.  The saxophone-less track leaves lots of room for unexpected turns in texture and mood in Hill's solos and makes space for a great drum solo from Haynes.  The title track lightens the mood with a lithe and cheerfully knotty saxophone melody and a lot more rhythmic juxtaposition between the low keys and the drums.  "Cantarnos" has more wonky rhythmic interplay, this time around a Latin-inflected riff and long-note legato melody from Henderson.  Things get slightly less driving on the bluesy and again horn-less "Tired Trade" and the album's only brief ballad, "McNeil Island."  The dizzying, stuttery and awesomely-titled "Land of Nod" closes the album with an excellent summation of the album's strengths and points the direction to Hill's later, even stranger compositions.

Black Fire is a great example of jazz that's simultaneously very listenable, extremely melodic (I can think of few jazz albums with melodies so instantly memorable), yet still strange and outside the bounds of what most jazz composers were doing in 1963.  Andrew Hill is as able a sideman as he is a composer and soloist; he never hogs the stage and displays impeccable taste when it comes to showing off his chops or supplementing the other players; such is the mercurial quality of truly great jazz musicians.  To speak in terms of my last two reviews, other than the risky compositions there isn't a lot formally to differentiate this music from the standard jazz formula, and yet there's no shortage of ideas regularly flowing out of all four players--the beauty of jazz is its liquidity.  All four are accomplished enough that they comp inventively and unpredictably around the chord changes and each others' solos, making for music that is founded on fixed elements but avoids repetition through in-the-moment and unrepeatable imagination.  Ideas are tossed out, perhaps repeated and slightly mutated a few times, then the player alters the idea enough that it's become something completely different, heading off into another direction like a feather in the wind.  Of course, it helps that Hill's compositions are so subtly unusual--I'm sure the weirdness lends itself to great idea-making in the minds of the sidemen.  There is much more great material to come from Andrew Hill and avant-garde jazz in general, but Black Fire is as good a place as any to get your first taste.

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