Edit: In my haste to publish this excellent article I forgot to attribute it to the writer himself, the legendary Jono “Funny Man” Savery. 

For most of his lifetime, Andrew Hill was under-heard and under-rated. Though there was a sudden surge in recognition late in his career, the problem is that, while those who have heard him now tend to revere him, far too many jazz-listeners have not. Why is he so obscure? It probably has something to do with two things. Firstly, when describing Andrew Hill, the most common adjectives you will hear are ‘cerebral’, ‘complex’ and ‘challenging. This obviously isn’t a bad thing, but cerebral isn’t what draws the crowds. Secondly, he never really slotted nicely into any of the many sub-genres of jazz; rather he traversed the line between the outside and the straight-ahead without ever falling strictly into either. He’s often called ‘avant-garde’, but that doesn’t do him justice. Nor is he really hard-bop, whatever that means. The tracks may go head-solo-head, but neither the head nor the solos are what you normally hear given the hard-bop label.

And so, like others such as Grachan Moncur III and Sam Rivers he is unlikely to feature on the playlists of the casual jazz listener. Which is a shame, because I’m still yet to come across an album of his that isn’t excellent. His most well-known album is obviously Point of Departure, but equally great are Compulsion!!!, Judgment!, Andrew!!! (apparently he liked his exclamation points), and Black Fire. These are probably the most spoken about of his albums, but one which I think most reflects Hill’s career is the lesser-known Pax. Recorded in 1965, Blue Note decided to hold it in storage for ten years, before releasing it as part of a compilation album, then finally releasing it in 2006. This isn’t unusual for a Hill album as Change, Dance With Death, and Passing Ships all received similar treatment. That someone could have heard this album and decided that it should be shelved is surprising, to put it mildly. With Joe Henderson on tenor, Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Richard Davis on bass and Joe Chambers on drums, the personnel is incredibly impressive and the music easily lives up to the expectations this creates.

Each of the charts on Pax is named after a female figure in Greek mythology (with the obvious exception of “Roots ‘n’ Herbs”) and the album seems at first glance to be structured rather like a typical hard-bop album of the time. But of course, being the album that it is, it plays rather more like a subversion of this archetype. The best example of this, and the highlight of the album for me, is “Eris”, which is an extended up-tempo blues and is named after the Greek goddess of discord. The head, spread across two choruses, is comprised of chromatic runs with no obvious melodic thread. The melody playing is undeniably rough, but all is forgiven as soon as the solos start and within the first 4 bars of Joe Henderson’s solo the swing feel drops out from underneath him. Throughout the 11 minute track Richard Davis only plays a walking bass for the two choruses of the head; after this his playing sounds more like a highly active single line comp than a bass line. This gives the piece a lot of flexibility and allows for a great deal more communication with the other members of the band. Hill’s comping is involved to the point of being overbearing, which is far from a bad thing. He drives the rhythmic and stylistic shifts throughout the piece, forcing the soloists and rhythm section to follow his lead, while all the time retaining the overarching blues structure.

Chambers is also hugely interactive and very rarely plays a straight-ahead swing feel. He leads the chart into one of its more unusual moments when underneath Hubbard’s solo he plays a kind of half-time straight quaver back-beat, prompting an outbreak of bluesy comping from Hill, which he continues while Chambers and Davis shift back to the more abstract accompaniment that preceded it. The result is strange but very effective. Moments such as this through this piece provide a challenge for the horn players and they respond with some excellent playing. My slight obsession with Joe Henderson means I’m unlikely to say anything bad about him (apart from about his weird singing attempt on the album Multiple) and he offers no reason to do so here. Typical to him his solo ranges from straight ahead bop lines to angular, chromatic runs filled with harmonics. Freddie Hubbard is also in fantastic form, playing a more interactive solo than Henderson’s in which neither he nor the rhythm section seem to be following one another so much as they seem to simply move in the same direction. Hill’s solo in this chart and his solos throughout are the level of excellence you always expect of him. As well as his always interesting use of harmony, Hill’s harmonic sensibilities are on display here, with lines that seem to float outside of the pulse, before gradually falling into line with the rest of the group. Ultimately, despite lasting for 11 minutes, “Eris” easily holds a listener’s attention and a close listen is thoroughly rewarded.

“Pax”, the Roman goddess standing for peace and spring, is more standard, a ballad with a pretty, winding melody. The solos can be distinguished from more typical bop fare once again through the involvement of the rhythm section, particularly Richard Davis who once again abandons the walking line for a far more interactive approach. In “Calliope” (the Greek muse of epic poetry) Henderson plays probably his best solo of the album, as he ventures into freer territory than he does on the rest of the album. He engages far more with the rest of the ensemble than he otherwise does, creating a memorable solo.

The two trio tracks are “Erato” (the muse of love and erotic poetry) and “Roots ‘n’ Herbs”, both of which are very listenable, but lacking slightly in the intensity supplied by the horns. Finally there is “Euterpe” (the Greek muse of music and lyric poetry), not the same “Euterpe” as appears on the great Sam Rivers album Contours, though it does seem strange that more than one person thought that was a good title. This track starts out as a burner before all of a sudden reaching the bridge when the pulse suddenly falls away. The driving swing is replaced by a half-time Latin feel and crotchet triplets from Hill with a more lyrical melody from the horns. This abrupt stylistic change occurs every chorus, providing another challenge for the soloists, which they all handle adeptly with varying approaches.

Pax is one of those albums that rewards more than a casual listen. In fact it requires it. Every track is challenging and much of it still sounds very progressive, despite being almost 50 years old. But at no point does it alienate the listener in its intellectualism, in fact most of the tracks are quite accessible. I can only hope that this accessibility is one day more widely acknowledged and that Hill gains the attention of a more mainstream jazz audience.

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