April 22, 2007

Andrew Hill (1931-2007)

Pianist/composer Andrew Hill died on Friday, April 20 after a long battle with cancer. Howard Mandel’s obituary can be found here.

Hill had been enjoying a critical and creative renaissance that began with 1999’s Dusk (Palmetto) and culminated in last year’s Time Lines (Blue Note). Time Lines is one of my favorite records of 2006 and is perhaps one of the best records Andrew Hill ever made.

Hill’s return to Blue Note provided a fitting symmetry to a career that began in Blue Note’s 1960s heyday. Alfred Lion, the founder of Blue Note, considered Hill his last great discovery and believed that Hill was “the new Thelonious Monk.” Accordingly, Lion encouraged Hill to record prolifically, even if most of the sessions were not contemporaneously released. The comparison to Monk is apt, not only for Hill’s angular and percussive pianism, but for Hill’s compositional approach which brought a greater complexity and sophistication to the post-bop idiom. Hill greatly benefited from Blue Note’s generous policy of paid rehearsals, allowing his intricate compositions to be recorded with precision and grace.

Thanks largely to the indefatigable Michael Cuscuna, Hill’s essential Blue Note records from the 1960s are all currently available in nicely remastered and affordable editions. Point of Departure (1964) is rightfully considered the masterpiece of this period, highlighting Hill’s singular compositions performed by a stellar ensemble including Eric Dolphy, Kenny Dorham, Joe Henderson, Richard Davis, and Tony Williams. Recorded two months earlier, Judgment! (1964) is a bit darker and looser, featuring Bobby Hutcherson on vibraphone, Richard Davis, and Elvin Jones. An Andrew Hill album in all but name, Bobby Hutcherson’s Dialogue (1965) extended this collaboration with a larger ensemble including Sam Rivers, Freddie Hubbard, Richard Davis, and Joe Chambers with Hill providing four of the five compositions. Other wonderful records from this period include Andrew!! (1964) and Compulsion!!!!! (1965), both of which feature John Gilmore in rare appearances outside of Sun Ra’s Arkestra. Compulsion!!!!! is probably the most avant-garde-sounding of all of Hill’s records, which I guess accounts for the plethora of exclamation points in the title.

All of Andrew Hill’s recordings are worth checking out and reveal an astoundingly wide range of compositional activity. 1969 was apparently a watershed year for experimentation, with an amazingly successful jazz quartet/string quartet ensemble session (unreleased until 2005 on Mosaic Select 16), a gospel-jazz oratorio (Lift Every Voice) and a nonet session which includes such non-jazz instrumentation as French horn, tuba, and English horn (Passing Ships). Hill also recorded a number of solo piano sessions, some of which have been recently released on Mosaic Select 23 (2006).

Andrew Hill’s music stands up to repeated and obsessive scrutiny, its subtle genius revealed over time. Hill, like Monk, Mingus, and Ellington, wrote ambitious compositions that simultaneously provide for the utmost improvisational freedom for its performers. Boosey & Hawkes has recently announced a publishing arrangement that will only serve to cement Hill’s reputation as one of the great jazz composers.


April 15, 2007

Lucinda Williams at the Ryman Auditorium 3/30/07

1. Rescue
2. Pineola
3. Fruits of My Labor
4. Drunken Angel
5. Car Wheels on a Gravel Road
6. Fancy Funeral
7. Over Time
8. 2 Kool 2 B 4 Gotten
9. Those Three Days
10. Where Is My Love
11. Righteously
12. Come On
13. Essence
14. Atonement
15. Unsuffer Me
16. Joy*
17. Everything Has Changed
18. West
19. Are You Alright
20. Ode to Billie Joe

* with The Heartless Bastards
& Buddy Miller

It was convenient to already be downtown on a Friday night: the car was already parked and there was plenty of time for a leisurely and delicious dinner at Parco Café in Printer’s Alley before walking a few blocks over to the concert. Very nice.

Lucinda Williams seemed quite happy to be back in Nashville, performing at the historic Ryman Auditorium, legendary home of the Grand Ol’ Opry and she made several comments from the stage about the wild times she had back when she used to live in here in “Music City.” Nashville guitar-hero Buddy Miller’s appearance during “Joy” added to the homecoming vibe (at the end of which Lucinda sang, “gonna go to East Nashville and look for my Joy”).

It seemed to take her a few songs to warm up, but by “Fancy Funeral,” Lucinda’s voice was in fine form indeed. I was surprised to see her referring to a telephone-book-sized stack of lyrics, but she is a well known perfectionist - if that is what it takes to ensure the best performance she can give, who am I to quibble? The new songs from West (Lost Highway 2007) fit comfortably with the rest of her repertoire and the rarely performed cover of “Ode to Billie Joe” was absolutely chilling. There is a delicious crack in Lucinda’s voice and she takes a jazz-singer’s liberties with her phrasing, all of which gives her songs an unutterably poignant expression in live performance. “Where is My Love” was stunning. She really sounded fantastic in that hallowed hall.

I will quibble a bit with her new band, however. The rhythm section was stiff and unsubtle which caused some of the songs to plod more than rock. And while Doug Pettibone is a tasty and inventive guitarist along the lines of J.J. Jackson and Larry Campbell (but with a bit more edge), his volume level would go from nearly inaudible accompaniments to painfully loud solos which was frustrating and sadly unnecessary. Pettibone wielded an amazing arsenal of beautiful guitars: a cherry-red Strat, a Black Beauty Les Paul, a taxicab-yellow SG, a big ol’ Country Gentleman, and a guitar that appeared to be (and sounded like) it was made of solid aluminum. A pedal steel guitar was on stage, but he didn’t touch it that night. I really would have liked to have heard him with a more sympathetic mix. Despite my quibbles, I believe this band could, in time, develop into as satisfying an ensemble as the now defunct “Love Band” (see Lucinda Williams: Live @ The Fillmore (Lost Highway 2005) for an example of the “Love Band” at the peak of their powers).

Openers the Heartless Bastards were a mixed bag. Singer/songwriter, Erika Wennerstrom has a very interesting and up-to-date take on the country blues and there’s an evocatively wiggly trill in her voice (think Kristen Hirsch) coupled with Janis Joplin’s emotive wail. At times sounding something like a 2X-chromosome Led Zeppelin, I wished that the rhythm section was more dynamic and supple and, further, I desperately wished for Jimmy Page’s lead guitar to fill out the empty spaces. As it was, the music never really got off the ground, despite Wennerstrom’s obvious charisma. Nevertheless, I think Erika Wennerstrom is the real deal, and I recommend keeping eye on her.

In all, it was a terrific night out.


April 8, 2007

Vega String Quartet at Emory University 3/23/07

J.S. Bach : Partita No. 3 in E Major, BWV1006
Wei-Wei Le, violin

Bela Bartok: String Quartet No. 6
Vega String Quartet

J.S. Bach: Suite No. 6 in D Major, BWV1012
Guang Wang, violoncello
Our trip to Atlanta was a nice (if all too brief) getaway, and it was a real treat to hear some music at Emory University’s new Emerson Concert Hall on Friday, March 23. The Vega String Quartet is the “quartet-in-residence” at Emory and has over the past year offered a challenging program combining all six Bartok Quartets with the solo string repertoire of Johann Sebastian Bach. I caught the last concert of the series. Bach and Bartok seems, at first glance, an odd combination: Ancient and Modern, austere and convulsive. But it worked, for the most part, if only because these pieces of music are simply so wonderful.

As for the Bach, I feel that perhaps it is my familiarity with note-perfect recordings of these pieces played on period instruments which marred my enjoyment of these performances played on modern instruments with modern, romantic affectations. The big vibrato, the goopy rubato, and the exaggerated dynamics sounded jarring to me and introduced an overt expressionism that seems out of time and place. Further, the performances were a little sloppy. Then again, the grit of the bow on steel, the missed notes, and the ringing open strings reminded me that this music was being performed live, in real time, by a real person, and helped to humanize what can be appear to be merely an empty display of virtuosity. Certainly, these works are difficult to play. But, to my taste, I prefer my Bach to sound effortless and eternal, not like the sound of struggle and domination. But, that’s just me.

On the other hand, the Bartok was absolutely sublime. The Sixth Quartet features the viola in a recurring lead role and Yinzi Kong played the part with the utmost emotion and control which served to unify the disparate movements into a moving and transparent whole. The Quartet played with an enthusiasm and musicality which really brought this somewhat difficult piece to life. It was great fun watching them watch each other and execute their passages with precision and grace; truly an extraordinary experience.

Other Atlanta highlights: a trip to Hutchins & Rea, purveyors of musical scores, where I lusted over pricey editions of Stockhausen, Berio, and Bach amongst many others, but came home with a bunch of Dover scores, Webern’s op.27, and a collection of Cage’s early piano music. We also had a thoroughly delightful and delicious dinner at Café Lily in Decatur on Saturday night.