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Of all the ways to become a jazz legend, not recording for long stretches of time is probably the least likely. Yet that’s exactly what legendary pianist/composer Andrew Hill has done since releasing a barrage of intrepid ’60s-era Blue Notes. Described by label honcho Alfred Lion as his “last great discovery,” Hill is one of the biggest question marks in post-Eisenhower jazz. When asked why he’s made himself so scarce since his 1963–1966 heyday, the Chicago native, who once led biographers to believe he emigrated from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, has offered a multitude of answers, none of them satisfactory on its own.
In 1990, Hill told the San Francisco Chronicle that he turned his back on the scene because, by the early ’70s, “the caliber of musicianship had started to deteriorate.” Ten years later, he told National Public Radio’s All Things Considered that, paradoxically, his elusiveness has afforded him a higher profile. In 2001, when comeback Dusk—one of several Hill has made over the years—was voted Downbeat’s Jazz Album of the Year, he told the magazine that his recordings have been sporadic because he’s always been happy just to play live.
All of this is at least in keeping with Hill’s music, which on new disc Time Lines is as elusive as ever. Unlike Cecil Taylor, perhaps the most important pianist in free jazz, Hill is hardly known for his improvisational prowess. Even though he was discovered while working on an album that included none of his own material (Joe Henderson’s Our Thing), it was his songwriting that, in 1963, captured Lion’s imagination and earned the 26-year-old pianist a steady stream of his own sessions, the first five of which took place in a span of just eight months.
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Of course, having his name attached to so many Blue Note highlights—1963’s Black Fire, 1964’s Point of Departure, 1966’s Smokestack—isn’t necessarily a luxury for Hill. Sure, it’s helped him remain relevant to those in his own idiom (up-and-coming pianists Jason Moran and Vijay Iyer) as well as those in others (Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus and Wilco’s Nels Cline). But it’s also meant that everything Hill has recorded since is viewed through the prism of that fruitful eight-month period. Time Lines, his first for Blue Note since 1991’s But Not Farewell, is sure to be no exception. The now–Jersey City–based pianist was clearly aware of the burden of his personal history when he told NPR that it’s best for him to avoid any all-star—or, as he jokingly pronounces it, “ulcer”—affairs. Whereas the roster for the classic Point of Departure reads like a Who’s Who of mid-’60s trailblazers, including saxophonist/clarinetist Eric Dolphy and drummer Tony Williams, the folks playing on Time Lines seem to have been chosen specifically for their lack of jazz-scene luminosity.
Few sexagenarians would want to be judged against their 20-something selves. But it’s impossible to listen to Time Lines and not hear echoes (and counterechoes) of vintage Hill. Like so much of his early stuff, the disc is distinguished by its dualism—by the tension between its avant-gardist and populist impulses. Hill has long claimed that his rep as boundary-pusher has more to do with jazz critics than with his music itself. Back in the day, he says, folks from the neighborhood knew where he was coming from. And granted, this is the same guy who wrote Lee Morgan’s 1965 single “The Rumproller,” a mainstream hard-bop tune modeled after “The Sidewinder,” the trumpeter’s jukebox hit from two years earlier.
But Time Lines at its least accessible suggests nothing so much as Byron Gysin and William S. Burroughs’ cut-up technique applied to the music of Thelonious Monk, another one of Lion’s great discoveries. Perhaps the best illustration of this is “Ry Round 1,” a stuttering, mid-tempo cut that evokes a Monkish mood without committing to a Monkish melody. On the chorus, Hill sounds as if he’s composing as he plays, hunting and pecking at the ivories while waiting for something, anything, to coalesce. During his solo, he’s even less tethered to his accompanists, bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson, who keep on swinging in spite of their leader’s rhythmic indifference. It’s either a mess or a revelation, depending, probably, on how closely you’ve paid attention to the rest of the track, which is a fairly expert demonstration of how seamlessly randomness can turn into precision and vice versa.
Hill has suggested that sometimes the only way to play with other people is to play against them, a technique that also shapes the Caribbean-tinged “Time Lines.” On that tune, Hill’s variable-speed one-chord riff comes across more like an attempt to get someone’s attention—the ring of a doorbell, say, or the pound of a gavel—than any kind of recognizable hook. Hardly fodder for Starbucks patrons, in other words, even if Time Lines does close with a bourgie-friendly solo-piano version of “Malachi,” a wallpapery bit of keyboard caressing dedicated to Art Ensemble of Chicago bassist Malachi Favors.
Of course, neither album is the kind of scrump-in-the-alley noise that appeals to fans of late-period Coltrane and any-period Ayler. Or, for that matter, to fans of Wolf Eyes and their climax-only ilk. If Hill’s blues sometimes seem impossibly dense, it’s because he has so much to say, not because he wants to nail you to the back of the club. Of all the players on this mixed bag of a homecoming, only clarinetist/saxophonist Greg Tardy ventures into territory that is truly and explicitly free. On ballad “Whitsuntide” and the art-boppish “Smooth,” he punctuates his improvisations with hard-on-the-nerves outbursts that, on first listen, seem apropos of nothing.
This is an Andrew Hill album, though, and the leader makes sure to contrast Tardy with trumpeter Charles Tolliver, a veteran collaborator from Hill’s Blue Note glory days. (See: the recently reissued Dance With Death, recorded in 1968 but unreleased until the early ’80s.) Whereas Tardy is brittle and unpredictable, Tolliver is crystal-toned and melody-minded throughout. His playing here is a genuine discovery, especially after his many years of keeping a low profile of his own. He and Tardy are the yin and yang of Time Lines’ hired hands, but more important, they’re stand-ins for the dueling halves of Hill’s neither-here-nor-there aesthetic—and perhaps some kind of admission on the pianist’s part that his music is both kind of accessible and not really what anyone wants to hear in a bar in New Jersey. If there were a mite less tension in the way that played out on Time Lines, it might be another Hill classic. That there isn’t is OK, though: An album doesn’t have to be a classic to help preserve a legend. CP