Jazz Essentials: Andrew Hill – Verona Rag
The obvious choice of all of pianist Andrew Hill’s many fine albums would be Point of Departure, his outstanding 1964 Blue Note set with Eric Dolphy, Joe Henderson and a ridiculously young Tony Williams, among others. But Hill’s discography includes many other gems, including this fine solo set recorded in Milan in 1986.
He’s a fascinating man, Mr Hill, not least concerning his own biography. Initially it was put about that he had been born in Haiti, because he had added a final e, Haitian style, to his name to make him stand out more in the crowd, but his birthplace turned out to be a bit of totally inappropriate PR spin from critic Leonard Feather, who thought the dark-skinned Hill needed some more local colour. Imagine the fuss if someone had tried to relocate Miles Davis to the slums of Port-au-Prince! In fact, Hill was born in Chicago. Not however, as is usually recorded, in 1937, but in 1930. That fact somewhat challenges the idea of Hill as a precocious talent, his debut set now appearing when he was 25, not 18, his run of Blue Notes when he was a mature 30-year-old, not a bright young thing in his mid-20s.
But one claim about Hill does stand true. Alongside the likes of Keith Jarrett and others, Hill was one of the first pianists to play solo, spontaneous improvisations, flying solely by the power of his imagination and his technical abilities. Verona Rag mixes three Hill improvisations along with reworkings of Jimmy Van Heusen’s Darn That Dream and John Lewis’s Afternoon In Paris. It’s a glorious combination, each track showcasing Hill’s trademark angular phrasing, jagged melodies, and dense layering of sounds.
Hill’s music is like a Cubist painting, giving you many different angles on the same subject, an approach best exemplified here by the outstanding title track, an initially jaunty Joplinesque rag that owes something to the gospel song I Decided To Make Jesus My Choice. He plays it as if turning a musical kaleidoscope, one of those optical instruments whose internal mirrors reflect back ever-changing coloured symmetrical patterns. The effect is mesmerising, which in my case is true of almost everything Hill ever played.