ANDREW HILL Point Of Departure (Blue Note)
Yet another of those albums in which the supporting musicians' status seems to outrank that of the headliner, the lineup here being arguably even more stellar than that found on Oliver Nelson's "The Blues And The Abstract Truth". Accompanying Haitian-born pianist Hill on this 1964 date are Kenny Dorham on trumpet, Eric Dolphy (yet again!) on woodwinds, Joe Henderson on tenor sax, bassist Richard Davis and teen prodigy percussionist Tony Williams. It surely makes "Point Of Departure" worth buying for the personnel alone; the fact that it's quite a good album in its own right is a useful bonus.
"Refuge" breaks open a bit like a Mingus big band recording, something along the lines of "Mingus Ah Um" or "Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus" perhaps, but rapidly shakes off such potentially comforting familiarity, leaving its blocky, brassy opening behind in its quest for more turbulent territory. Hill's free-form soloing is unshackled from melodic and rhythmic constraints, and Davis' bass work conjures up a cauldron of bubbling weirdness and Williams scatters beats like shrapnel. This stuff is complex, but happily it doesn't not swing, nor is it quite so polarisingly far out as, for example, Dolphy's own "Out To Lunch". "New Monastery" offers more of the same, pretty much, and it's a pleasant surprise to hear Dorham holding his avant-garde own alongside Dolphy. "I wanted to get a march feeling without actually playing a march", reports Hill in the sleevenotes, and certainly this could hardly be accused of being militaristic. "Spectrum" is somewhat distended compared with what precedes it, but even here it's once again an unexpected delight to hear Eric Dolphy's flute, an uncommon sound in jazz (but one seemingly becoming more common with just about every record I buy these days!)
Pressed by the opaque Scorpio Music, the current vinyl incarnation doesn't sound too bad, although it suffers from what seems to be the house style of the company's Blue Note reissues, being somewhat congested. Certainly, should somebody issue a 45rpm audiophile pressing of this title I would expect it to trounce the sonics available here, but in its absence this will have to do. Unfortunately, Scorpio's general sloppiness is exposed by the way they've split "Spectrum" over the side break, requiring the listener to turn the record over two minutes into the track. No, really, very well done!
ANDREW HILL Black Fire (Blue Note)
Andrew Hill was an American jazz pianist, and "Black Fire" is his second album and Blue Note debut, originally released in 1963. It's a more conventional proposition than what I've heard of his later work (his fourth long-player, "Point Of Departure"), but still retains a mysterious ability to sound reasonably conventional when heard from a distance as background music yet appear tangled and complex close up. What "Black Fire" does have over "Point Of Departure", though, is a heft and density that arguably makes it a better bet for a beginner than the more avant garde, abstract stylings of the latter album. Notable members of the quartet here include bassist Richard Davis, later to become a key component in the sound of Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks", and saxophonist Joe Henderson.
"Subterfuge" channels that aforementioned tangled complexity through common time, ending up as a most jazz-funk-unlike fusion of funk and jazz, like Brubeck meeting James Brown, maybe. "Cantarnos" is almost salsa, albeit with a lengthy drum solo, and "Land Of Nod" ravels into a cat's cradle of piano and percussion, perhaps the most difficult of the seven tracks here.
Having scammed "Black Fire" as a freebie MP3 download courtesy of an Amazon voucher, I have to reiterate my agreement with the mystification Nick Saxton expressed in the last newsletter at the appeal of paid-for downloads compared with CDs. At today's prices Amazon will sell me a sub-CD quality download of the album for £7.49, or a copy of the disc itself in "used - like new" condition for £5.63 delivered. No competition, surely?