Andrew Hill - Smoke Stack (Blue Note)

smokestack.jpg

I have always had a strange relationship with the 1960s recordings of Andrew Hill. After discovering him through the indispensable Penguin Guide to Jazz three years ago, I have picked up every Hill session in print, beginning with the highly-regarded Point of Departure and continuing through Smoke Stack, a December 1963 session reissued as a Rudy Van Gelder edition last week. Oddly enough, considering that I keep buying his stuff, I have been almost uniformly disappointed by every release. With each album, I sense that I am supposed to think this music is good, but find myself underwhelmed all the same. And yet I keep digging into the catalog, perhaps more out of habit than anything else.

Reading through the liner notes and listening to the albums again over the past couple of weeks, a common theme emerges: in its attempt to sell Hill’s music in the increasingly-narrow jazz market of the 1960s, Blue Note sought to portray Hill as, above all else, a musical problem-solver, daring enough to push against the boundaries of the jazz idiom, but yet sufficiently respectful of the music’s tradition to remain within that framework. Listening to those sixties Hill sessions again through this prism, my troubles with Hill’s work became clearer. Too many of his compositions feel like academic exercises rather than artistic statements (if one can even draw a distinction between the two!) It was almost as if Hill set out to write a piece of music in order to prove that he could, for instance, write a 50-bar tune that maintained some semblance of a cohesive structure. Complexity became the central purpose of Hill’s art; his ideas became more impressive precisely because they were so convoluted.

Yet with Smoke Stack, something causes me to pause at these over-generalizations. With a two-bass lineup of Richard Davis and Eddie Khan, the music on this date attains an unusual thickness, a propulsive density that seems to force Hill to make his playing more declarative and insistent. With Khan playing a supporting role, Davis is also free to push his music into more melodic terrain. His bowed work on “Wailing Wail” provides the album with its most moving performance, and is part of what makes Smoke Stack the finest Hill session of the 1960s.

Posted by djones on February 12, 2006 5:40 PM
Comments

Great choice, David. I really dig this album, as much for Hill as the presence of Davis, Khan and Haynes as his running mates.

Interesting theory about Hill’s formalist motives. I think that argument can best be made in the context of the vault material collected on the Mosaic Select. The compositions & line-ups there are sometimes so multifarious as to be counter-productive to the end results. It’s a bit tragic too when you consider how great most of those ensembles look on paper. But even with the subjectively bookish bent of a lot of his work, I wouldn’t want to be without any of Hill’s Blue Note cache.

Posted by: derek at February 12, 2006 7:04 PM

whoa, David, thanks for bringing up Andrew Hill, a long overdue subject here. We could probably cover many, many pages in a discussion of his 60's music, and I'm glad you chose Smoke Stack, one of his more engaging records from this period.

If I could summarize what I feel to be his greatest contributions to music, it would fall between the bookends of (and including) disc 1 and disc 7 of his Mosaic set. One of my most memorable periods of my relationship with music concerns the weeks I spent with that set and reading the liners and bio notes on the couch. I'm with Wolff: he was one of the most provocative musicians of his time.

The main reason I'm commenting here involves some thoughts I had a few weeks ago, particularly after Derek Bailey died. We tend to get wrapped up in thinking that of the musicians that died young, the Coltranes and the Dolphys and the Littles and the Hendrixes surely would have continued to make great music and stretch the boundaries of what we know as creativity. Like Coltrane would have ever sold out... Andrew Hill argues strongly against those ideas. Not that he ever sold out, but it's not as if he went on to change the world after shaking things up with those early Blue Note dates. Rest assured his reputation would be far more concrete and exaltation would be synonymous with his name had he not lived to see the 70's, if history tells us anything.

My point? Uniformity in an artist's oeuvre is a rare thing and certainly not anything to be sought out and the lack thereof is especially not to be held against that musician. The most complicated and beautiful thing a musician can do (and it tends to dole the most rewards) is to make a cohesive, timeless record that sustains our interest for 40 minutes or better. Smoke Stack is an instance of just that.

Posted by: al at February 12, 2006 7:54 PM

I've always found Hill's music "cold," and yet I also am a Hill-60s-completist. Smoke Stack is not as high on my list, though it's an interesting record - Black Fire kills me each time with its plastic swing and uniquely startling harmonic palette, and is one of the high water marks in the BN catalog (and least academic of Hill's). Point of Departure is great, too; I'm not so impressed by Andrew!!! and Compulsion, despite the heavy ensembles, for the reasons outlined above.

Good choice, in any event - thanks!

Posted by: clifford at February 12, 2006 9:57 PM

Agreed with the "cold" comments. I dig Point of Departure, but mostly because Dolphy is so white-hot. Pity Andrew Hill: too straight to be in the 'mainstream' of the avant-garde, and too out-there to be in the mainstream of the mainstream.

Al, your comments about legacies and dying-young heroes are most interesting. I wish I could think of something to add, but I can't.

On average I've found a lot of the 60's Blue Notes to be uninvolving, and I don't exactly know why. I guess my main beef is this: Often the ensembles were put together by Alfred Lion as I understand it and not by the musicians themselves, although certainly the New York stable was a small enough pool that everyone in it was familiar with the work of others there. But to me, this is a warning sign, that such ensembles were not longstanding bands who worked on compositions for a record date and not necessarily worked with each other over a longer period to establish an ensemble sound. Perhaps Andrew's music must needed more rehearsal to really nail the subtleties. I know that sounds presumptuous of me to say, but, heck, I wonder. I've heard an awful lot of music that could have used more attention to dynamics and ensemble balance.

Posted by: djll at February 13, 2006 2:01 AM

I'm with Clifford . . . Black Fire is one of my all-time favourite '60s recordings, a more interesting set than the aspirational but occasionally misfiring (and less well recorded - Van Gelder didn't do the music justice, and, overall, how he recorded piano was always peculiar, nubby and a tad tonally characterless) Point of Departure. That said, I greatly enjoy all of Hill's ensemble musics. Not so much the solo piano outings that pepper his oeuvre; as with Ran Blake, his rhythmic off-steps and jarring jab-accents work best when a rhythm section carries the pulse. But what I particularly like about Hill's music is that it perplexes me. While a track is playing I can follow it, enjoy the solos, and understand how the parts fit together, but after the music has finished I'm often at a loss to say what the cumulative effect is/was; I'm left with a feeling, an atmosphere, scraps of melody, but nothing terribly tangible. Every time I hear his music (and, in particular, his solos) I hear something different - it's a splendid resource, deep as a well and often just as mysterious.

Posted by: Brian Marley at February 13, 2006 2:33 AM

"Pity Andrew Hill: too straight to be in the 'mainstream' of the avant-garde, and too out-there to be in the mainstream of the mainstream."

That's precisely what makes him interesting!

"But what I particularly like about Hill's music is that it perplexes me."

Yes, mystery is a big element in Hill's music. I can see why people in general find that "cold," but I'm surprised so many here have that feeling.

His piano playing stubbornly refuses to follow any logic other than his own, and this lack of easy communication is what makes his music interesting, IMO. That's also why I find Eric Dolphy a big mismatch and John Gilmore a great fit (be it on Andrew!!! or on the hard-blowing Compulsion).

And a tune like "Erato," how can you not melt for it?

Posted by: Mwanji at February 13, 2006 5:08 AM

“Rest assured his reputation would be far more concrete and exaltation would be synonymous with his name had he not lived to see the 70's, if history tells us anything.”

This is a popular theory and one that makes plenty of logical sense, but I’m not sure it plays out as pat as we might like. For example, take a look at the careers of Herbie Nichols and Frank Hewitt: Nichols made incredible & influential music & died young; Hewitt lasted decades longer, also crafting consistently exceptional, if not necessarily innovative, stuff over the span. Yet neither man is known much outside of serious jazz fan circles. Fame & clout isn’t necessarily a function of meteoric talent & an early demise.

Then there’s someone like Sonny Rollins who made his massive strides early, found his voice and has been orating in slightly different vernaculars ever since. His place and popularity are ironclad, but there are still plenty of folks who dismiss him on the dubious grounds of creative stagnation or his opting to play with bands & material far beneath his talent; both charges I consider largely bogus.

I credit Hill’s various sabbaticals from active performing/recording and retreats into academia as having more to do with his ‘middle tier’ rep than any failure to innovate with his music. Granted, those absences from the scene were likely necessitated by the fickle financial realities of a half century career as a jazz musician.

“Perhaps Andrew's music must needed more rehearsal to really nail the subtleties.”

I think this is definitely true of much of the material of the Mosaic Select set, but it’s also a reason why I appreciate his relative good fortune of recording for Blue Note. Firstly, it preserved a large corpus of his music at a crucial time and served as a means of circulating it to the larger public. Second, it’s troubling to imagine what albums like Black Fire and this one might have sounded like had they been recorded for, say, Prestige w/o any paid rehearsal time and with strict studio time parameters in place? Thinking about this sort of stuff makes me grateful that we have what we have.

Posted by: derek at February 13, 2006 7:01 AM

"Perplexing:" An obvious point of comparison would be Thelonious Monk. What did Monk have that Hill didn't? For me it's a sense of perversely subversive humor. I don't get that from Andrew Hill. Monk was famously "inscrutable," but Hill is even more opaque.

Posted by: djll at February 13, 2006 10:09 AM

Yes, from Monk I get more of a sense of warmth, humor, and joy in his playing. Hill's playing at times borders on the sterile, at least for me.

Posted by: David Jones at February 13, 2006 11:16 AM

...and yet, I spend more time listening to Hill than I do listening to Monk, and I also spend more money on Hill's music than Monk's, so he must be doing something right.

Posted by: David Jones at February 13, 2006 11:17 AM

I've started piling up Hill discs in the last few months, too, and while my current favorite is Andrew!!!, I think they work best as components of an iPod playlist I've assembled of a bunch of "free-ish" 60s Blue Note albums by Joe Henderson, Sam Rivers, Bobby Hutcherson, Wayne Shorter, Jackie McLean, Grachan Moncur III, etc. I shuffle through this pile o' tracks at random, and the Hill tunes are more immediately appealing than, say, most of the Hendersons (except Inner Urge), but in general, they're just a nice part of a larger whole, never so overwhelmingly individualistic that they leap out from the pile.

Posted by: pdf at February 13, 2006 12:07 PM

My favorite HIll lp is "strange serenade" with Alan Silva and freddie Waits.

Posted by: Damon Smith at February 13, 2006 1:55 PM

Strange Serenade is terrific. Another splendid Soul Note CD, though very different from Strange Serenade, is Shades. And of recent vintage, Dusk (Palmetto).

Posted by: Brian Marley at February 13, 2006 4:10 PM

Dusk is good; I'd like to hear that Soul Note with Silva and Waits. I assume Hill was in Milano while Dixon was in town recording In Italy I and II - that's his rhythm section!

Saw Hill with Tardy, Nasheet and a great bass player whose name escapes me, in Chicago about five-six years ago. Great gig, except Hill mostly laid out while the trio took it stratospheric...

Posted by: clifford at February 13, 2006 5:25 PM

"My favorite HIll lp is "strange serenade" with Alan Silva and freddie Waits."
Mine is the quartet with Rivers, Booker & Moses from 66 (or was it 67?). Violence, Pain, Lust etc..

Posted by: Dan Warburton at February 13, 2006 10:57 PM

Derek: I don't think you can compare Hill to Nichols or Hewitt. Nichols hardly recorded and spent most of his time playing in dixieland bands and Hewitt never released anything at all. Any fame he has is posthumous. Hill was probably in a better position for early-death fame.

Monk & Hill: Is Monk really that inscrutable? Granted, Hill isn't a barrel of laughs and demands some concentration, but enough time spent scruting will lift the veil, I feel.

I agree with Phil in the sense that there was a very interesting scene at the time of people continuing bebop's early search of complexity.

Posted by: Mwanji at February 14, 2006 2:19 AM

Monk's music is quirky but surely not inscrutable. (The man himself was, however, both.) In a nutshell: intervallic relationships are much more important to Monk than to Hill, though Hill's harmonic sensibility seems to be more advanced. As for the coldness of Hill's music, which more than one person has commented on . . . I don't hear it that way. In fact, there's a romantic strain to his playing, given freer rein in his solo recordings, that emanate a warm glow, sometimes too much so for my liking.

Posted by: Brian Marley at February 14, 2006 3:11 AM

my fav would have to be POINT OF DEPARTURE...
SMOKE STACK rocks also...

Posted by: antboy at February 14, 2006 4:41 AM

I don't think you can compare Hill to Nichols or Hewitt. Nichols hardly recorded and spent most of his time playing in dixieland bands and Hewitt never released anything at all. Any fame he has is posthumous. Hill was probably in a better position for early-death fame.

Maybe not, Mwanji, but that’s part of what I was trying to get at: any theory of “early-death fame” is going to have to take note of its vagaries to begin with. Positing that the fame and relative “purity” of Coltrane and Hendrix is a function of their premature passings (in a sense, that they never had the chance to “sell out”) seems unnecessarily reductionist to me (not that that was what Al was doing with his post). What you wrote above relates to another prescient point, canonical reliance on recorded evidence, which in reality often only touches the tip of the iceberg of what was actually happening during a given time frame.

Posted by: derek at February 14, 2006 6:10 AM

I've always liked Andrew Hill and most of his Music and never thought of it as cold. The Blue Notes maybe a little stiff due to lack of rehearsal time as one person said. I'm not sure if Andrew even had a working Band during that Blue note period. I'd like to hear that Quartet with Sam Rivers and I assume Bob Moses? Out of print? The Soul note one is very good. There's also a trio With Art Lewis on Drums on Inner City thats very good. Can't remember the name of that one or the Bass player.
Years ago I used to Badger the Manager of a Swanky Jazz Club in Town to book Andrew Hill but he had never heard of him. Perhaps that's changed.

Posted by: Alden at February 15, 2006 10:49 AM

The Moses Dan is referring to is J.C. Moses, though I don't seem to remember his name on that record. Haven't heard it in years and it's buried in a moving box somewhere, so can't check right now. I remember it being rather "out."

If it is J.C. Moses, then I should definitely try to dig it out again, because he is one of my favorite drummers - sorely underrated, too.

Posted by: clifford at February 15, 2006 7:15 PM

Wow, I just adore Andrew Hill's Blue Note work, especially the stuff from Black Fire up through about '66 (roughly the period documented in the Mosaic Box). I certainly hear his beautiful music as anything but "cold" (which often seems simply to mean "it's not my cup of tea," an opinion masking as a descriptor) but that's just me.

Of his later stuff, I really like Shades.

Posted by: Jason at February 15, 2006 7:28 PM

You blokes are probably better informed on reissues and what have you, but the quartet I was referring to was recorded in Englewood Cliffs NJ on March 7 66 and features Hill, Rivers (ts), Walter Booker (b) and JC Moses (d): tracks Violence, Pain, Illusion, Hope, Lust, Desire. They weren't released at the time, as far as I know, and cropped up on "Involution", one of those BN Reissue Series double LPs in 1975, coupled with the Rivers sextet from 67 (which has been reissued I think). If ther Hill 4tet stuff has come out since then, esp on CD, I'd like to know - Rivers' solo on "Violence" is one of his most amazing.

Posted by: Dan Warburton at February 15, 2006 10:53 PM

Dan, afaik the only cd release of that session so far is as part of the Mosaic 63'-66' box set, indispensible & sadly oop.

I'm with Jason on Shades, Cliff Jordan sounds great on that date too.

Anyone heard Time Lines, Hill's new one on Blue Note?

Posted by: derek at February 16, 2006 5:50 AM

i also have to say that i love andrew hill's blue note's... just about all of them. but i think that some of the best stuff also comes from after '66; 'grass roots' and 'dance with death' as well as the later tracks on 'one for one' with tolliver pat patrick and ron carter et al. a little more mainstream in terms of the compositions but i think the ensembles are tighter and the musicians are more comfortable than on some of the earlier ones.

also, i remember reading somewhere that hill had a working trio with joe chambers and richard davis... there's a beautiful piece by that trio on 'one for one'.

Posted by: asher at February 16, 2006 6:10 AM

I have Time Lines on my iPod, but haven't listened to it really closely yet. On first run-through, it was pretty solid, if a little slow 'n' tender for my taste (but hey, the guy's old and rumored to be in poor health; if he wants to coast to the finish line, let 'im).

Posted by: pdf at February 16, 2006 7:50 AM

_Smokestack's_ use of two basses in the small ensemble is prophetic, as that configuration would prove popular in the years to come.

Bill Dixon made great use of two basses on _November 1981_ and _Vade Mecum I & II_. Marco Eneidi also capitalized on the two bass configuration both on record (_Final Disconnect Notice_) as well as live. I remember seeing him perform in Vermont many years ago with William Parker and Larry Rolland. More recently, Marco used two basses extensively at his going away event in Oakland a little over a year ago.

Even if the two-bass instrumentation was only contribution Hill made to the music (it isn't) he'd still be a giant.

Posted by: sjz at February 16, 2006 9:16 AM

"You blokes are probably better informed on reissues and what have you, but the quartet I was referring to was recorded in Englewood Cliffs NJ on March 7 66 and features Hill, Rivers (ts), Walter Booker (b) and JC Moses (d): tracks Violence, Pain, Illusion, Hope, Lust, Desire. They weren't released at the time, as far as I know, and cropped up on "Involution", one of those BN Reissue Series double LPs in 1975, coupled with the Rivers sextet from 67 (which has been reissued I think). If ther Hill 4tet stuff has come out since then, esp on CD, I'd like to know - Rivers' solo on "Violence" is one of his most amazing."

Right, that's the one I was thinking of. For some reason I was thinking it was Joe Chambers, but then it probably wouldn't have sounded like I remember it sounding with Chambers anyway. Wish all my BNs weren't in a box; I'd jam it tonight if I could... I remember it being insanely heavy. I thought it was post-Mosaic Box, but then my brain seems a bit addled with too many names and sessions at this point to keep it all straight!

As for two basses, their use on Smokestack never really impressed me the way it does with Cecil, Trane, Dixon, Lasha et al. If you really want to hear some fascinating two-bass hits, dig into Dixon's "Winter Song" from the Savoy split LP, which has Izenzon and Hal Dodson plasticating time quite interestingly.

Another great one is "Speak With Your Echo (And Call This Dialogue)" from Clifford Thornton's Ketchaoua, which has a trio of Thornton, Beb Guerin and Earl Freeman, and it's a motherfucker.

Posted by: clifford at February 16, 2006 11:53 AM

Ketchaoua and Frank Wright's One For John are two of the last BYG titles not to make the transition to CD, and I'm really getting impatient.

Posted by: pdf at February 17, 2006 9:33 AM

Has the Dixon Savoy split ever been issued on CD? I've never taken the trouble to find out.

Posted by: Dan Warburton at February 17, 2006 11:40 PM

Yes, it is on CD. They also corrected the title switch on the Dixon pieces, I believe.

Posted by: clifford at February 19, 2006 6:07 PM

Finally got this. Does anyone find the two basses really enhance the music? Apart from "Wailing Wail." The music breathes so easily in "Verne" that it just seems muddy elsewhere. Maybe it will clear up on subsequent listenings.

I don't know if it's the two-bass line-up or being out front, but Hill's playing does seem less cryptic here than elsewhere. It's interesting, though, that you can hear a lot of the same compositional ideas as on "Black Fire," albeit in a more difficult context.

Posted by: Mwanji at March 6, 2006 3:13 AM

Does anyone have any other post-60s-BN recommendations?

Posted by: Mwanji at March 7, 2006 3:14 AM

Yes. Donald Byrd's Places and Spaces, George Adams / Don Pullen Breakthrough, and Cassandra Wilson's Glamoured. Or did you mean Andrew Hill albums? :)

Posted by: Dan Warburton at March 7, 2006 7:10 AM

I like the first three albums on the big Mosaic box (Black Fire, Smoke Stack, Judgment) but I think that the last five (Point of Departure, Andrew!!!, Pax, Compulsion, Change) are all noticeably more exciting. I like to listen to all eight in sequence and when Point of Departure starts the sudden leap in intensity is palpable. Yeah, it's partly from Dolphy, but I think the subsequent ones without him are just as vivid and good. I can't imagine describing those five as "cold". They are cerebral, but they're also taut, action-packed, kaleidoscopic, overwhelming. It seems impossible that music so intricate and dense could also be so clear, so economical, with no false moves, nothing wasted. But then as Brian describes, there's also something bottomless and elusive there, something that always demands going back for another listen. I'm always chasing this music but I know I'll never catch it.

Posted by: Seth Tisue at February 18, 2008 9:51 AM


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