Thursday, February 21, 2013

Andrew Hill -a-thon (Part 1)

It can feel like we waste hours on social media sites. And maybe we do. But they can be used as important news sources, and they can allow for important conversations to happen. Sometimes posts spin off into threads that become heated conversations between people who might never have the possibility if being in the same room together. So Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook, etcetera are in incredible resource if they're used as such.

Having been thinking a lot about records and listening lately (see my previous post), I was lucky to see a Facebook post by my friend and colleague Mara Rosenbloom last Friday. Her post read:

"Spotify, itunes, youtube,'s what I want - 1 monthly delivery: Andrew Hill Records in chronological order, on vinyl. Or how bout something like a bi-weekly CSA pick-up, except instead of vegetables, I get records...or how bout records & vegetables...that will cover most of the bases."

My first reply said that she could set up her own listening  schedule, but it would take some discipline.  But then I thought that I should do it too, or better yet Mara and I should coordinate our listening and do it together.  We could keep each other on track.  So I proposed this and happily we decided to spend two weeks on each Andrew Hill Blue Note record in chronological order.  The first is Black Fire with Hill, Joe Henderson, Richard Davis, and Roy Haynes.  The plan is to get together to listen to and discuss each record and the end of each two week period.

This project is perfect because Andrew Hill has been a gaping hole in my study for far too long.  I've tried to get into his Blue Note records a few times and always failed.

Andrew Hill was a musician that seemed to be largely avoided in the jazz education world, at least in my upbringing.  I remember getting these Jamey Abersold jazz theory booklets and the Double Time jazz record catalogue, which had a list of "100 historically significant" jazz recordings.  This was a very valuable resource for me and my friends in college.  I purchased nearly all 100 recordings during those years.  This list was full of Blue Note records, perhaps even 50%, but there were no Hill records on it.  The only record I remember getting wind of during my undergraduate music studies was "Point of Departure".  The focus was on the great Blue Note records Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson, and Horace Silver, to name a few.

So began this hole in my study.  The Herbie records kept me pretty busy anyway.  But while I was at Manhattan School of Music, I found the Andrew Hill Blue Note Mosaic box set in the library, which I must admit to importing into my iTunes Library.  Sorry.  However, I never got that far into it.

There are three reasons why I think I didn't get far.  One is that Hill's music (at least the little of it that I have actually heard) is more complex and dense than the Herbie, McCoy, etc of the period.   I feel it is music that needs to be digested slowly.  There is a certain rhythmic element to Hill's piano playing that seemed a little off to me in the past. I was fine with the Herbie.  During my time at MSM, and afterward, my tastes were expanding into the free jazz world, and for awhile I was actively avoided straight ahead music all together.  The Hill stuff seemed to be in kind of this middle territory.  Straight ahead in some ways, though definitely left of center, but not far enough out to satisfy my free jazz curiosity.

The second reason has to do with how I acquired the recordings - all at once.  I wrote about this a bit in my previous post.  Box sets are nice for the packaging, the new liner notes, perhaps the organization of having the tracks presented in the order they were recorded.  But wow are they hard to digest.  I think box sets serve a listener better if he or she had previously owned the individual records.  Especially if he or she collected them as they were released and was able to spend periods of time with 40-minute batches of music.  I found that when I'd occasionally try playing the Andrew Hill Blue Note box set that it would pretty quickly all start sounding the same.  It was too much to digest for me.

The third thing that prevented me from getting into these records it pretty stupid.  It is actually the sound quality of them.  The piano sound of the Rudy Van Gelder Blue Note records of the 60s is not very good.  However it is not the quality that really bothers me, rather the characteristics and the memories associated with it.  It's psychological.  When I was in Wisconsin studying music I was so deeply into music of the 50s and 60s.  I was constantly listening to these records (other than Hill's) and thinking about these musicians.  When I imagined New York City, I imagined that period.  I had very little awareness or interest of the current music.  Exceptions were Keith Jarrett, Brad Mehldau, and Dave Holland - that's about it.  While I was doing my master's at MSM, I was slowly (and fortunately) pulled into the current happenings, and then toward the free jazz and improvised music.  The pendulum swung fully.  As I mentioned earlier, after finishing my masters I felt the need to distance myself from straight ahead jazz and my music studies - shed the training wheels if you will.  For many years, hearing even just a snippet of that Blue Note 60s piano sound brought me back to the mindset of my jazz training too hard.  I had to avoid it.  It actually bothered me right up until I started this project with Black Fire.  After listening a couple days, the piano sound wasn't bothering me anymore, and that stupid psychological hang up is gone.  Ah, the mind, what a joy.

So, I am thrilled to have come across Mara's post, and that we have begun this listening project.  I am already getting so much out of it.  I've been playing Black Fire every day since Friday, usually multiple times a day.  I'm starting to know the record.  This reminds me of how I used to listen to records.  I think it mainly happened in the car, actually.  Aside from the road noise, driving seems to be perfect for listening to music.  You have to be awake.  Your eyes are occupied.  Your brain is in kind of a passive mode, being partly occupied by driving.  Perhaps I don't absorb records as easily anymore because I don't have a car.   I've actually found that while riding the subway I listen well when I'm playing some easy game like solitaire on my phone.  Again, my eyes are occupied, my brain is passive, I can listen without getting distracted every two minutes.  Of course focused and directed listening is best and I try to do this as often as I can.

My first impression of Black Fire was that they sound a little drunk, especially rhythmically.  It's rougher and not as precise as the other Blue Note records by other artists of the period.  There is a wide feeling of the pulse. But as I have began to absorb the recording more, what is popping out now is these amazing compositions and forms.  The opening track, Pumpkin, has this great rhythmic hemiola interruption in the form.  The second track, Subterfuge, has a very cool funky rhythmic figure that keeps returning.  These tunes sound like they would be really fun to play over.

Another first impression is that Roy Haynes is killing it.

I look forward to getting to know Black Fire better.  And I'm really excited to get to know Andrew Hill's work much better.   I'm already thinking of what musicians to do this with after Hill.  I also have the Herbie Nichols Blue Note box set, which has also been a problem....  I'm thankful that a few years ago I reluctantly created a Facebook account, and that recently I've been paying more attention to it, and to how it can be beneficial, and that because of that I saw Mara's post, and that she agreed to do this project.  

1 comment:

  1. Hey man

    Your music is fantastic!

    All the best from Italy Riccardo