Andrew Hill: Shades and Strange Serenade

Andrew Hill never sounded that much like Thelonious Monk, but, like Monk, he was an alternative to conventionally hip and conventionally virtuosic pianists. Also like Monk, Hill was a great composer nurtured by Alfred Lion and Blue Note. Indeed, Lion may have shown more faith in Hill than anybody else, recording something like a dozen sessions from 1964 to 1970. All those LPs have gone into the history books (especially for the compositions, which are finely-wrought and detailed, and usually feature multiple horns) but at the time those early Hill Blue Notes were hardly big sellers.

Hill’s post-Blue Note output in the 70s was a bit scattered and uneven. I don’t know these records well but not all the sidemen are equally good and at times the sonics are uncomfortably raw.

Shades from 1986 was an event, a well-recorded date with the highest level collaborators. As far as I know this is the most “inside” Hill music apart from his mellow trio debut So In Love. While not a tribute album, the swinging prophet Thelonious Monk certainly looms over the date in a manner of pure benediction. Hill’s pieces are simple, mostly on familiar forms, not much like the furiously modernist mixed meter structures heard on Black Fire or Point of Departure. The drummer, Ben Riley, was a consecrated Monk associate. Clifford Jordan is in the bluesy bop Charlie Rouse role, and Rufus Reid is right in there. The set even begins with “Monk’s Glimpse,” a Hill take off on Monk’s “Children’s Song,” which in turn was a riff on the nursery rhyme “This Old Man.” (Riley was the drummer on the original Monk recording.)

Hill’s themes are usually direct, while his improvisations are indirect. This is unlike Monk, who simply swung every beat of every bar, and perhaps more like Herbie Nichols, who also liked to wander around after the head. Of the three, Hill is the most oblique rhythmically, where the very articulation of the beat can be hidden within surreal phrasing. At his best, Hill’s lines have a kind of off-kilter mutter that contain just enough Earl Hines and Bud Powell to “scan.” I adore the opening minutes of “Monk’s Glimpse,” it’s all there in the piano blowing but rearranged just so. Then, after Clifford Jordan comes in to lay down the law, Hill’s comping functions the same way, swinging with avant grace. Riley doesn’t adjust to Hill, he is simply classical perfection in every beat.

“Tripping” is a minor-key mood piece exhibiting the “Spanish Tinge” spoken of by Jelly Roll Morton and others. Hill is from Chicago, where Ahmad Jamal made his mark at the Pershing. Is “Tripping” a bizarre answer to Jamal seen from a great distance? Rufus Reid enjoys his low “D” and the trio vibe is satisfactory throughout. The original tune is not much, indeed, it’s almost a cliché, but the players take it to distant places.

It’s time for some medium-up blues. After the hip theme of “Chilly Mac” there are enjoyable trades between Jordan and Riley. Hill’s solo is another elliptical statement, but he’s never lost and even digs into the time occasionally. Jordan plays another round and damn does he sound good. (Jordan also appears on Mal Waldron’s superb 1981 session What It Is with Cecil McBee and Dannie Richmond, a disc with certain off-kilter yet swinging qualities not unlike Shades.)

Another trio piece, “Ball Square,” is riff that feels like rhythm changes. Herbie Nichols might be a relevant reference, although Nichols would never do the theatrical cut-time minor key passages. Reid even picks up the bow for some Richard Davis-style noise bass.

“Domani” is the most advanced piece on the date, and the only one that recalls the Hill of the 60s Blue Notes. The composition is seriously beautiful but in this case I’m not sure if the mix of personalities comes to a truly fruitful agreement: either Hill needs to straighten out, or the bass and drums need to break up the time a bit more. Jordan seems a bit literal and repetitive in his solo as well. They probably needed to gig for a week first in order to get a really strong take of “Domani.”

“La Verne” is a walking ballad alternating between 3/4 and 4/4, written for Hill’s wife. The waltz has a bit of gospel, while II/Vs in the 4/4 suggest Tadd Dameron. This track seems a bit “normal” for the pianist. In this era Hill was playing this kind of composition in his solo concerts, but unlike the straightforward approach heard here, Hill would totally deconstruct “easy” themes like “La Verne.”

The highlights of Shades are the first three pieces, “Monk’s Glimpse,” “Tripping,” and “Chilly Mac,” which find a perfect mix between the swing of Ben Riley, the firm horn of Clifford Jordan, and the surreal gestures of the leader. The success of Shades seems to have led directly to Hill’s re-signing at Bruce Lundvall’s Blue Note, and Hill resumed making well-rehearsed albums with multiple horns investigating firmly modernist material, first with Blue Note, then with Palmetto.

From the wilderness years of the 70s, I definitely have a favorite, Strange Serenade with Alan Silva and Freddie Waits. When I first got it as a teenager I didn’t like it, but later Frank Kimbrough told me it was a masterpiece, so I listened again. On the one hand, of course, it is avant-garde. (Alan Silva is one of those bass players that you probably wouldn’t want to call for anything else.) But the piano playing is also refined, even almost bland, like mood music gone wrong, especially on the opening “Mist Flower.” This is truly weird stuff.

“Strange Serenade” is a shade more conventional, simply because it is obviously an atonal burner with little fanfares as a head. Freddie Waits was comfortable with any kind of groovy black music from his generation: funk, experimental, swinging, you name it. I believe that Strange Serenade is the longest and most exposed example of Waits doing this kind of multi-directional style. Hill keeps quoting the fanfare in his improvisation and the trio builds to a big finish. A highlight track to be sure.

“Reunion” starts as a waltz (I think) with Waits on abstract brushes. The piano Hill is playing on is not in great shape, and Sliva doesn’t play a written part or changes, so whatever happens is strictly in the mysterious zone. I wouldn’t want to live there every day but there’s something about this record that is really quite perfect. At some point Silva and Waits find a quarter note together and the music lurches forward with nonchalant swing, Hill spinning surreal double-time lines on top.

“Andrew” is a ballad by Laverne Hill. Ok, on this one probably there needed to be less noise bass, or at least Silva could have been turned down in the mix. Waits tries out mallets as a way to make sense of the situation. Once again, a mid-tempo swing evolves out of the thicket, and eventually the record rolls to a reasonably graceful close, although the final piano gestures leave us with more questions than answers.

The greatest Andrew Hill will always be the music with complex arrangements and rehearsed horns, but these two middle-period Soul Notes show how Hill could make really bizarre yet charismatic music in stripped down circumstances. Shades is the swinger, Strange Serenade is the fully oblique. A nice pair of records!