The Runners-Up is a monthly column, wherein we will analyze an album that isn’t the consensus first choice or most canonical title by a given artist, but is one worthy of more attention than it’s received to date. The album we’ll look at this month is…Andrew Hill‘s Judgment!, originally released in 1964. (Get it from Amazon.)
Hill, a pianist, was born in Chicago in 1931. (For many years, he was reported to have been born in Haiti in 1937.) He began working professionally in the early 1950s, and released his first single in 1956 with a group featuring Von Freeman on tenor sax, Pat Patrick on baritone sax, Malachi Favors on bass, and Wilbur Campbell on drums. He made a trio album, So In Love, for the Warwick label in 1960, with Favors and drummer James Slaughter, before signing with Blue Note. He made his debut with them in 1964, releasing two albums in the same year.
The first, Black Fire, was recorded in November 1963 and released the following March. It was a quartet disc with Joe Henderson on tenor sax, Richard Davis on bass, and Roy Haynes on drums. The album appeared in the middle of a small wave of “inside-outside” records by artists including Henderson, Bobby Hutcherson, Jackie McLean, Grachan Moncur III, Wayne Shorter and others, all working to expand the parameters of jazz composition while still retaining the deep, bluesy feel of the hard bop they’d come up in. Hill’s pieces — the album contained all original music — were spiky and modern, but had the same kind of meditative beauty at their core as Thelonious Monk‘s work. (Bear in mind that true meditation, clearing one’s mind and opening up to the universe, is hard fucking work. It’s not about sitting on your ass and blissing out.)
Last year, Matthew Shipp published a fascinating essay on what he calls the “Black Mystery School” of jazz piano. Hill was high on his list, and he described the pianist’s work as follows:
Andrew Hill is as iconoclast as iconoclast can iconoclast. He seems to directly be in the Monk line of the pianist/improviser as composer and, in his way, has as unique and powerful an application of that archetype as Monk. He has some of the stance of Monk in attitude and was obviously liberated by Monk’s use of space, but Hill has his own language and way of doing it on the piano. His universe is his own planet — completely. Hill is in line with [Mal] Waldron and [Randy] Weston as far as taking up some aspect of a post-Monk mantle — but what makes Hill so interesting is he is a parallel universe to Cecil Taylor.
Of course being a Black Mystery School pianist does not necessary equal avant-garde. But Hill fits in both in the sense that his posture can be seen as a post-Monk conceptualist/iconoclast — but he also mollifies the Cecil Taylor monopoly on the perception of free-jazz piano in that if a free jazz pianist gets tired of getting compared to Cecil they can get inspiration from Hill and claim him as more of a direct influence. Andrew Hill’s elliptical phrasing seems like a direct extension of his elliptical mind. Hill is someone who managed to slip through all the cracks and defy any category though it is obvious what he comes out of. In some ways his playing is the ultimate fuck you to everything and everyone.
Judgment! was Hill’s second Blue Note release, though it was his third recording session for the label. His second session produced the album Smoke Stack, which didn’t land in record stores until 1966. Judgment! featured six of his compositions, performed by Hutcherson on vibes, Davis on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums.
Richard Davis seems to have been a crucial partner for Hill; he played on seven of the pianist’s Blue Note sessions, and worked with him again a decade later, on the 1976 trio album Nefertiti. On Judgment!, they are absolutely working as a team throughout, with Hutcherson and Jones in alternately supportive and/or ornamental roles. On the title piece, Jones starts things off with an aggressive beat, and takes a fairly thundering solo later, but it’s the interaction between piano and bass that gives the piece its muscle. As Hill solos, Davis is right there beside him, offering his own variations on the chords and melody and seeming to haul the music forward and prevent the pianist from disappearing into an endless spiraling whirlpool of notes. Hill may have had Monk’s sense of space and odd, fascinating time, but he was just as happy to play long, discursive, Bud Powell-esque lines when the mood struck him.
The contrast between Hill’s voice and Hutcherson’s is fascinating, too. On “Flea Flop” ( named for the first two notes of the melody, which suggested a jumping flea to Hill), the vibraphonist approaches the somewhat sparse and minimal composition by giving it bounce, capering across the instrument in a series of trilling leaps and repeated patterns almost like a tap dancer. Hill, by contrast, almost lashes out with a series of long, doubling-back and self-interrupting phrases, while Davis’s solo is a heavily strummed attempt to knock the walls out, Samson-style.
Hill recorded nearly a dozen albums’ worth of material for Blue Note between 1963 and 1970, and with the exception of Black Fire and 1965’s Point of Departure, almost any one of them could appear in this column, as some weren’t released for years, and others simply didn’t get the attention they deserved at the time. His work was not really designed to appeal to a broad public (even though he could do that if he wanted to, as the straight-ahead boogaloo “The Rumproller,” his contribution to the Lee Morgan album of the same name, proves with ease); it was challenging music, though highly rewarding if you let it sink in. Judgment! is a subtle, brooding masterpiece, somewhat self-effacing in that it never campaigns for your attention, but the more you listen, the more there is to hear.
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