Blazing the Way to a Beautiful Day

by Keri Carlson

Although 65-year-old jazz composer Andrew Hill says he feels “blessed to have a continuation with music,” it is his listeners who are truly blessed. Since learning to play the piano at age 13, Hill has continued to create exceptional chord progressions layered with beauty. His two most recent albums, the 2000 release “Dusk” and this year’s live recording, “A Beautiful Day,” prove Hill remains just as important a figure in jazz music today as he was 40 years ago.

As a child, Hill absorbed jazz music simply by walking around his Chicago neighborhood. Radio stations streaming from open windows and street musicians on every corner embedded in him an early love for the music. Innovative modern jazz pianist Earl Hines and classical composer Paul Hindemith took Hill under their wings and by the early 1960s, he had already accompanied such legends as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Dinah Washington on piano.

In 1963, Hill debuted on the jazz label Blue Note with “Black Fire,” an album showcasing his unique melodies crafted with bold and complex chords. His infamous 1964 album, “Point of Departure,” shows the growth of Hill’s compositions. “Departure” rests comfortably between wild-free jazz and tamed-traditional styles. Perhaps because of his inability to fit into one specific form, Hill remains relatively unknown. He receives little recognition for avant-garde or hard-bop jazz.

After a 10-year break from recording, Hill triumphantly returned with “Dusk.” Like the title – a border between day and night – Hill and his sextet shift from sunny drum skips and prancing horns to dark, pounding piano keys and piercing saxophones. Most tracks feature individual band members throwing big punches of sound to create dramatic buildups. However, Hill best demonstrates the originality of his compositions by relying only on his piano for the piece “Tough Love.” Complicated twists tangled with elegantly stroked notes make the music difficult to listen to but irresistibly gorgeous at the same time.

On his latest album, “A Beautiful Day,” Hill’s background in classical music is especially apparent. The addition of seven musicians to his standard sextet makes the album sound like a cross between his earlier Blue Note recordings and the score to a 1930s film. “A Beautiful Day” illustrates Hill’s attempts to continually expand his music.

At the Walker Art Center on Saturday, Hill will be joined by his quartet, Greg Tardy, John Herbert and Nasheet Waits, a group of musicians Hill describes as exactly what he has been looking for. Hill says working with a large band requires more discipline; he looks forward to playing with a smaller group because it gives him more freedom to experiment.

Regardless of the size of his band, Hill says he always strives for “great music of the moment” and a synergy with the audience. His desire to play and create music has never left him. This weekend lucky jazz enthusiasts will have the opportunity to witness this pioneer as he continues to blaze new musical paths.

The Andrew Hill Quartet will perform at the Walker Art Center this Saturday, Dec. 7 at 8 p.m. (612) 375-7622.

Keri Carlson welcomes comments at [email protected]