Lung cancer finally took Andrew Hill on Friday, April 20. The jazz cognoscenti mourn; the rest of the world never heard of him. This is seemingly a familiar situation, but Hill may be the most extreme example. Blue Note founder/producer Alfred Lion called Hill "my last great protege." An odd choice of words -- what did Lion have to teach Hill? Maybe just to be himself? -- but Blue Note recorded Hill extensively for the rest of the 1960s despite a lack of sales, and if not all of the resulting albums were issued at the time, at least they were made, and have since appeared.
Hill's complex compositions on his '60s Blue Note albums inspired great respect -- even awe -- in his fellow jazz musicians, but for the record-buying public they may have seemed too knotty and abstruse. As the Beatles and rock diverted the music audience, as free jazz captured headlines and created divisiveness, Hill pursued post-bop evolution, not revolution, making him too difficult for the jazz-as-lifestyle-accompaniment types, but not radical enough for the avant-gardists. What listeners take out of Hill's music is earned only through careful attention.
Born in Chicago in 1931, Hill began playing piano as a teenager. He played with Charlie Parker when he came through town and received lessons in arranging and composition from classical music icon Paul Hindemith. Hill's debut album, a trio setting, came out on Warwick in 1956 (since reissued by Fresh Sounds). After time on the road with Dinah Washington and a period in Rahsaan Roland Kirk's band (Hill can be heard on Kirk's album Domino, recorded in 1962), he settled in New York City and began his first relationship with Blue Note in 1963. Among his many contributions to the label was writing "Rumproller" for Lee Morgan. It was the most commercial thing he ever wrote. There were a few sideman sessions, notably Hank Mobley's No Room for Squares and Straight No Filter, Joe Henderson's Our Thing (all 1963), and Bobby Hutcherson's Dialogue (1965, with Hill contributing most of the tunes), but mostly Hill worked as a leader performing his own compositions.
It's a bit hard to calculate how many albums Hill made for Blue Note from 1963 through 1969, since so much material was recorded and not issued at the time, but a conservative answer is 15. Clearly Alfred Lion really did love Hill's music. The most famous of the albums is 1964's Point of Departure, with Eric Dolphy, Joe Henderson, Kenny Dorham, Richard Davis, and Tony Williams. Sun Ra Arkestra tenor icon John Gilmore, also rarely a sideman, played on two other fine Hill albums, Andrew!!! and Compulsion. Hill's swan song for Blue Note, at least in that era, was Passing Ships, a nonet session not released until a few years ago, at which point it became an instant -- if belated -- classic; last year it was honored with a recreative concert at Merkin Hall in New York City, a surprising honor for an album that went unissued for over three decades.
After Hill's relationship with Blue Note ended in 1970, he spent most of the next two decades in academia, with an impressive series of professorial posts. The best '70s Hill albums I know are both on the Freedom label, Spiral and the solo Live at Montreux; some Steeplechase releases are also considered good, but I've yet to hear them. In the '80s, a prophet without honor in his own country, Hill only recorded for the Italian label Soul Note, making four fine but dark albums, the quartet date Shades (1986) being the highlight.
He returned to Blue Note for albums in 1989 and '90 that the label ought to make available again (c'mon Blue Note, at least put them on iTunes) -- his contemporaneous appearance (and last as a sideman) on Greg Osby's The Invisible Hand is still in print, albeit only in Europe. (Though, with producer Michael Cuscuna making so many Hill sessions available on his Mosaic imprint, maybe these will soon reappear.)
It was back to recording oblivion for nearly the rest of the '90s, but a Hill cult was growing among select young jazz musicians in New York, culminating in his return to the recording studio in 1999 for the comeback album Dusk on Palmetto, which followed it up with the ambitious big-band album A Beautiful Day three years later.
Then came the lung cancer in 2004, but Hill rallied for the valedictory effort Time Lines in 2006, its title referring to his unique, quirky sense of rhythm, somewhat akin to Thelonious Monk's but more avant. In a classy move, Blue Note had taken Hill back into the fold for a third time for that final release. Since his '56 debut had been mostly standards, in a way this brought Hill's career as a performer of his compositions full circle. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje thanks guitarist Frank Galante for convincing him to go to the above-mentioned Merkin Hall concert last year.