The Circle with a Hole in the Middle

Rare Vinyl Revisited
by
Bill Shoemaker

 

Andrew Hill
From California With Love
Artists House AH9

CircleHillMost detailed assessments of Andrew Hill’s music all but ignore his solo recordings. There are simple reasons for this, such as their relative unavailability, compared to the pianist’s most famous Blue Notes. And, there is the undeniable fact that Hill’s ensemble recordings are a towering achievement by themselves. Yet, for any other pianist, a half-dozen solo albums as good as Hill’s would merit extensive consideration.

Intriguingly, four of Hill’s six solo albums were recorded in a five-year span, beginning with 1975’s Hommage (East Wind, recently reissued on Test of Time) and ending in ’80’s Faces Of Hope (Soul Note). For Hill, this was a period of transition, even emotional displacement, as reflected in his sleeve notes for From California With Love, recorded in 1978:

At the zenith of my Blue Note recordings, I found that fame and fortune were not my reward, but fame and poverty. This was hard to believe, for I had seen artists like Miles Davis, Maynard Ferguson, Oscar Peterson, etc., pass through Chicago. They weren’t surviving but living.

At the top of my promotion, the English Rock groups were storming America. I had two alternatives: go commercial, or find a way to maintain my lifestyle. I was born with the ability to play anything I heard, so music would be with me regardless of what road I took.

At first I became bitter and hurled insults at those who were keeping me alive; since then I have found that could live without condescending and create a work of art. This record is proof of that.

While making this record I had a fear – had I lost the energy and conception that New York City is allegedly supposed to give an artist? While editing my tapes I had an opportunity to hear current tapes of more promoted pianists. I must say that this record is equal to or superior to anything on the market. This record should give the listener many great moments. What I’m trying to do is paint a picture with my music.

I must also give acknowledgement and special thanks to my wife LaVerne Hill. She has been by my side saying “You can do it.” Her faith has given me the strength to overcome the many obstacles that have come.

Not only had Hill – who was then in his early 40s – seen his fame slip away, but concluded that it was fundamentally hollow. Additionally, his teaching career had yet to be secured through the post at Portland University he held until his return to New York in the 90s. Yet, the sense of vulnerability permeating Hill’s sleeve notes is offset by his renewed faith in his abilities. On From California With Love, Hill delves into this tension, performing two compositions whose emotional bearings are complex and ambivalent. This is Hill’s only album that is comprised of two sidelong performances, and by its end it is clear that the extended running times were required for Hill to work through all of the emotional implications of the compositions.

Prior to From California With Love, a good portion of the material Hill recorded for his solo albums was also recorded contemporaneously in group settings, “Snake Hip Waltz” and “Relativity” from the 1975 solo concert recording, Live In Montreux (Arista/Freedom), being salient examples. This partially accounts for the similarities between Hill’s ensemble and solo music during those years, especially in terms of incisiveness. Regardless of how angular the line, roundabout the harmonic movement, or stutter-stepped the rhythm, the emotional tone and internal logic of Hill’s music throughout the ‘60s and into the ‘70s was almost instantly revealed. That changes somewhat on “From California With Love” and “Reverend DuBop”, as Hill seems to work from the inside out, resulting in a more gradual realization of the pieces.

The title piece begins with single notes scattered through the octaves, coalescing into short phrases to establish an initial atmosphere of fragmentation and tentativeness. Hill then seems to lurch upon the thematic material; but in retrospect, the thematic material is so tender and lyrical that the prelude comes off as modernist camouflage. Yet, Hill does not settle for simple beautiful music. Instead, using varied attacks, the extreme registers, and short tangential motive (some of which have a fascinating resemblance to material Cecil Taylor would use a few years later on albums like Garden [hat ART]), Hill creates a wide array of stark, if mostly momentary contrasts. Hill’s mastery lies in his ability to use these devices not to disrupt the flow of the performance, but to enhance it in stunningly unexpected ways.

Though Hill uses some of the same procedures on “Reverend DuBop,” the overall tone of the piece is brighter. Hill seems more intent on a type of portraiture that is as much referential as it is reverent, employing a phrase from “Summertime” here, elegant John Lewis-like changes there, and dollops of blues phrasing throughout the piece. The way Hill sustains a rhythmic flow without demarcating every bar line is more plainly reminiscent of the Blue Note era, as well. However, the solo setting and a substantially livelier piano sound than favored by Rudy Van Gelder in the ‘60s brings out numerous details in Hill’s playing that are at least partially submerged in most of his ensemble recordings.

 

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