47. Back in the studio

Tripping. From Andrew Hill, Shades. 1986

This is a recording of a type that became familiar in the 1980s: a jazz giant who had become much less visible, making a brief trip to Europe to perform for some who remembered, and being adroitly ushered into a studio to make a record or two while there – often by the producer here, Giovanni Bonandrini of Soul Note.

The results could be mixed, but this time they were outstanding by any measure. Andrew Hill, sustained largely by college teaching since his brief years of glory (critical, not commercial) with Blue Note in the 1960s, had not made a record for half a dozen years, and that was done the same way. He was more than ready for another – indeed he went back into the studio the next day to play solo and laid down enough for another LP, the splendid Verona Rag.

But this album, and especially the trio tracks – Clifford Jordan makes it a quartet date about half the time – was a sparkler. Cliff is his excellent self, but isn’t as fluid with the time as Hill tends to be so the foursome sound a little more conventionally straight ahead.

The trio – with the matchless rhythm partners Rufus Reid on bass and Ben Riley on drums – are with Hill every step of the way, no matter how much he plays with the tempo. That allows him to give free rein to his every spontaneous impulse, knowing he has infallible support. It can sound idiosyncratic, but his musicality shines through, and the level of invention is consistently high.

Hill was a synthesist rather than an innovator, but what a synthesist! Every keyboard figure from Tatum onwards was discernible in his style. He could do Bud Powell if he chose, but hewed more to Monk. He had listened to Cecil Taylor. He was a brilliant composer and, along with Jaki Byard, one of most complete pan-stylistic pianists in the generation before Geri Allen.

You can hear that on the almost sarcastically wrought blend of Monk and Ellington here on the trio track Ball Square and, better I think, on this piece, which is a lesson in how a player can be percussively chordal while showing a brilliant control of keyboard touch. Tripping is a reference to that lightness of touch rather than to any alteration of consciousness I think, and it is matched by an intensely detailed accompaniment from Riley, while Reid growls away agreeably more in the background.

There were more recordings to come – even a return to Blue Note with Greg Osby – but for me this gem from the ’80s remains a career highlight.

Why the No 47? This is one of a series running (in no particular order) through 2021. I explain a bit what it’s doing here.

There’s a cumulative playlist of all the ones that can be found on Spotify


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