Point of Departure

Hill, Andrew

album cover

Now Departing, Destination Unknown

Unlike most jazz musicians involved in the hard bop scene of the 1960s, pianist Andrew Hill (1931–2007) didn't take every job that came along. In fact, he turned down almost everything—unless it involved playing his own music. A deep thinker who'd spent years developing his compositional style, Hill was steadfast about this, even if it meant hardship. At one point he wrote a letter to Down Beat magazine explaining his position. He invited those who wanted him to continue making music to send money. Years later, after his contract with Blue Note Records expired, he sought grant funding for his compositions and taught.

Listening to Point of Departure, which lets a top-shelf ensemble loose on Hill's intricate, suitelike compositions, reveals why the pianist was so determined to avoid compromise: He was immersed in developing new strategies, platforms that would spark musical conversations far more interconnected than the blithe chatter that prevails at jam sessions. For Hill, who'd studied with the classical composer Paul Hindemith, spending an evening playing "My Funny Valentine" and other such standards was counterproductive. Better to be at home, refining his defiantly knotty unconventional tunes.

Point of Departure is one of five albums Hill recorded for Blue Note between November 1963 and June 1964. It's startlingly inventive—extended, wandering melodies give way to outbreaks of skittering "free bop" time-shifting that recall the Miles Davis '60s quintet (that group's drummer, Tony Williams, is on board). But there are also passages that demand fleet fingerwork: The twelve-minute "Refuge" contains themes that tax the significant abilities of saxophonists Eric Dolphy (alto) and Joe Henderson (tenor); Dolphy's solo is one blurred, impossible-to-transcribe run-on sentence. When it's his turn, Hill moves through odd, irregular clumps of pianistic notions like he's turning the earth over for new planting.

In a sense, that's what Hill did as a composer: He took common ideas and turned them over, until they became newly fertile. And beyond cliché. Alas, his future-jazz sound never caught on outside the community of musicians and a few enlightened listeners. It was an iconoclastic vision far different from anything else happening in 1964, and it remains that way today—a point of departure, with many possible outcomes.

Genre: Jazz
Released: 1964, Blue Note
Key Tracks: "Refuge," "Spectrum," "Flight 19."
Catalog Choice: Passing Ships; Judgment
Next Stop: Herbie Nichols: The Complete Blue Note Recordings
After That: Greg Osby: Banned in New York
Book Pages: 359–360

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