Graded on a Curve: Andrew Hill,
Point of Departure

Pianist and composer Andrew Hill cut Point of Departure for Blue Note just a touch over 50 years ago. To this day the session endures as one of the true masterpieces in post-bop jazz. Featuring an amazing supporting cast and a brilliant program of Hill’s original songs, it’s a faultless and frustratingly undersung record.

When the subject turns to underrated piano players, the late Andrew Hill fits the description perfectly. While he’s not as unknown as Ran Blake, Lowell Davidson, or Valdo Williams, it’s still stymieing how a guy who consistently produced one classic after another for arguably the most successful jazz label of the 1960s is basically only on the radar screens of heavy-duty jazzbos and Nels Cline-nuts (in 2006 the veteran improviser/Wilco guitarist issued the tribute New Monastery: A View Into The Music Of Andrew Hill).

Andrew Hill often gets lumped in with the avant-garde, and while that is far less of a disservice to his oeuvre than just placing him into the ‘60s jazz mainstream (though he did possess significant commercial potential), the New Thing doesn’t accurately encompass his strengths throughout a long and occasionally problematic career.

A good word to describe him would be cerebral. Both Hill’s composing and his improvising are positively loaded with unanticipated turns gracefully rendered, and he was able to get considerable expressiveness from some of Blue Note’s most familiar personnel. He also regularly included more eclectic recruits, a few of which are painfully under-documented.

Happily, Hill experienced a sort of late-career resurgence, returning to Blue Note with fanfare and some surprising sales figures shortly before his death from cancer in 2007, but I still find myself digging around in his massive ‘60s output. Though it’s sometimes overlooked, So in Love was his debut as a leader, recorded in ’56 for Warwick but unreleased until 1960, and while the sound quality ain’t great the LP still sheds major illumination upon his development.

Along for the ride is future Art Ensemble of Chicago bassist Malachi Favors and a little known Windy City drummer James Slaughter. So in Love isn’t an earth shattering listen, but Hill already offers elements of uniqueness at this early point, messing around with pleasant Caribbean ideas while never totally succumbing to the norms of the period.

A November ’63 Blue Note date resulted in Black Fire, Hill’s first as leader for the company, though his inaugural appearance under that august banner came two months prior as sideman on Joe Henderson’s superb Our Thing. Succinctly, Black Fire is a monster. Throughout, Hill maintains expert balance on a tightrope between angularity and essential swing, full of spiky assertiveness and serious playfulness, expanding on those aforementioned Afro-Cuban tendencies with stirring artistic progress. Along the way he spurs his partners into some fantastic interplay.

Tenorman Joe Henderson sounds very inspired, and the rhythm section of bassist Richard Davis and drummer Roy Haynes tangle together into a fabric of vibrant notes and textures. If you’re a newcomer to the music of Hill, starting with Black Fire is a sensible maneuver. It has bucketfuls of the instinctive qualities of the best jazz of its era while lacking even a whiff of workaday sessioneering.

The December taping of Smokestack retains Davis and Haynes, subtracts Henderson and adds a second bassist in Eddie Khan. Frankly, this sort of instrumental lineup isn’t often utilized and it sounds pretty great here. Naturally it’s very much a record about rhythm, with Hill gliding around reacting and commenting upon this quality as he also spurs his cohorts into higher levels of creativity. Smokestack isn’t quite as gripping as Black Fire, but it still has much to offer.

January ’64’s Judgment! is a quartet of Hill, Davis, vibe maestro Bobby Hutcherson and drummer extraordinaire Elvin Jones. This slightly more common instrumental lineup initially gives the LP the feel of a straight-up post-bop session, but that’s slowly peeled away to reveal a steady engagement with progressive movement. Jones sounds sublime as Hutcherson blends his distinctive percussive tones into a fine tapestry with Hill. Davis is a beautiful anchor; he was Stravinsky’s bassist of choice, and I’ve never heard a disc where he sounds less than stellar.

But all this is prelude; taped on March 21 of ’64, Point of Departure is simply one of the very greatest of jazz albums. It offers Hill at an early apex in his career, bringing together one of the most mind bending one-and-done groups ever assembled. Henderson’s back, as is Davis. Add hard-bop mainstay Kenny Dorham on trumpet, the young and jaw-dropping Tony Williams on drums, plus Eric Dolphy on alto, flute, and bass clarinet.

And the music lives up to expectations, holding a constantly evolving beauty. In fact it’s so gorgeous that the presence of Dolphy, while certainly noticeable, never has that smack of jarring idiosyncrasy one often finds on the more mainstream (I’m not using that word as a putdown) releases (like for one instance The Latin Jazz Quintet) that feature his participation.

On Point of Departure everybody is working at the very peak of their abilities. “Refuge” begins the album with a collective melodic line before Hill commences his solo at the one minute mark. The following 120 seconds are a magnificent excursion into the unexpected. As a writer Hill could alternate between the poles of unabashed commerciality a la the boogaloo-esque “The Rumproller” (waxed by trumpeter Lee Morgan) and far more complex material (some of it like the fabulous quartet date Change unissued for decades), and as a soloist he was persistently exciting and never reliant upon elevated clichés.

Hill gives way to Dolphy who acquits himself without flaw to then step aside for the talents of Dorham, the true veteran of the group (his first LP as a leader was completed for Charles Mingus’ Debut label over a decade prior to Point of Departure, plus his ’55 LP Afro-Cuban is an important early Blue Note disc that was a likely influence on Hill’s first album). From there Davis delivers a terrifically nimble solo before Henderson steps up with a flurry of tough fluid lines to be followed by a terrific snare-centric solo from Williams. After a restatement of its theme “Refuge” ends at just a shade over 12 minutes.

I’ve just outlined the standard theme/solos/theme post-bop motif, but as executed by this group it’s anything but typical. Indeed, it took numerous listens for it to sink in just how reliant upon traditional modern-jazz ideas “Refuge” actually is. However, considering that Hill’s pieces always maintain at least a loose handle upon “inside” structure, the qualities expressed via the opener are ultimately unsurprising.

The title of “New Monastery” fleshes this out even further. The story is that producer Alfred Lion and photographer Francis Wolff both thought the piece remindful of Thelonious Monk; after being told of the association Hill came up with this highly appropriate title. Additionally, in Hill’s liner interview with Nat Hentoff, the composer mentions striving for a “march feeling without actually playing a march” so that he and the band could solo “as freely as we wanted to.”

And part of what makes “New Monastery” so exquisite is the sometimes surprising responses from the contributors to this concept of uninhibited freedom. While Dolphy’s spot is edgier than Dorham’s, the distance in abstraction isn’t as wide as some might suspect, and it’s not because Eric’s holding back. The tune and especially Hill’s soloing do emit a moderately recognizable Theloniousness, but as on Monk’s great records the individualist playing enhances the uniqueness of the tune as the soloists complement rather than clash with each other.

Henderson sounds terrific, but the spotlight is nearly stolen by the pure skill of Williams at the kit. The emergence of this teenage phenom is one of the great stories of ’60s jazz, and one that many largely associate with Miles Davis’ indispensible decade-long run. But everything Williams played on for Blue Note is also a must listen, detailing the rapid-fire growth of a drum titan.

Those with a constant itch for inside/outside scenarios will no-doubt cozy right up to “Spectrum,” a meter-shifting number that allows the players a wide range of emotional possibilities. Dolphy’s all over this one, but a succession of small moments really brings the composition home; the sound of the ensemble totally clicking shortly before that first flight of bass clarinet, flashes of brilliance in Williams, and Davis’ moments of isolated tandem, the wonderfully atypical employment of flute (including an uncredited Henderson on the instrument).

Hill sounds fantastic throughout the track. From there, the brief “Flight 19,” rife as it is with fleet note clusters, offers the pianist’s most gloriously intense playing. It contrasts particularly well with the solemn mood of closer “Dedication”; initially titled “Cadaver,” in Hill’s words the piece is “meant to express a feeling of great loss.” And part of the album’s lore is that the composition’s mood inspired tears in Kenny Dorham. Upon hearing, it’s easy to understand why.

Point of Departure has attained a stature in jazz history that’s secure, yet it lacks the fervent following inspired by other documents of its era such as John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage, or even Dolphy’s own Out to Lunch. This surely has much to do with Hill’s musical temperament; his work requires time and familiarity before the vastness of the whole really begins to unfold and deliver lasting impact.

Where many legitimately great jazz LPs retain the aura of an uncommonly fruitful blowing session, or perhaps underscore their intent to spotlight the artistry of a certain (frequently young and upcoming) player, Point of Departure, like the discs mentioned in the above paragraph (and akin to Giant Steps, Mingus Ah Um, and Bitches Brew), connects like a fully-conceived album. That it came as the fourth installment in a flurry of determined recordings with an unforeseeable outcome (it was captured before Black Fire even hit the racks) only serves to increase its appeal.

In the end he wasn’t angry or thorny enough to be championed by the advocates of the full-blown free jazz nation, and even for those in line with the progressions of advanced post-bop and modal sounds it seems he required a little too much effort. But as far as Andrew Hill’s artistic legacy goes, time is on his side, because as Point of Departure so eloquently proves, he’s still way ahead of it.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A+

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