The problem with tribute records is that they are often too literal, and artists mistake reverence for true appreciation. Not so with Nels Cline's New Monastery: A View into the Music of Andrew Hill. If the best way to honor a source is to demonstrate how it's altered one's own musical perspective in a deeply personal way, then Cline's homage is one that should please fans of both the aging pianist and the intrepid left coast guitarist. While there are plenty of recognizable elements, Cline's tendency to honor the spirit rather than the letter of Hill's music makes this disc such a rewarding listen.
Drawing for the most part from Hill's extensive 1960s Blue Note discography, Cline makes the first major step away from close interpretation by removing the key element that has always defined the music: Hill's idiosyncratic pianism. With a sextet that features accordion, clarinet, cornet, bass and drums, Cline completely alters the complexion of even the most straightforward tracks. "McNeil Island," interpreted as a guitar/clarinet duet, retains the chamber jazz vibe of Hill's sax/bass/piano original, as does the more rhythmically charged "Pumpkin," into which it neatly segues.
By the time the sextet is halfway through "Not Sa No Sa," however, it's clear that Hill's writing is but a foundation for considerably greater free play. Andrea Parkins' overdriven accordion and Cline's own processed guitar create textures that, combined with bassist Devin Hoff and drummer Scott Amendola's maelstrom-like undercurrent, drive Bobby Bradford and Ben Goldberg's in-tandem cornet/clarinet solo. Cline gradually introduces a repeated phrase that acts as a rallying point, leading into his own unfettered solo over Hoff and Amendola's rapid swing, before breaking down into seemingly complete anarchy. But as the tune nears its end it's clear, with a number of tight punctuations, that there's more arrangement here than meets the ears.
A 23-minute medley of the chamber-like "No Doubt," the more open-ended "11/8" and the brooding "Dance With Death" demonstrate just how liberally Cline and his group re-imagine Hill's music. Cline and Parkins' use of effects processing add textural modernity to the material, but what’s equally clear is just how ahead of its time Hill's material was over four decades ago.
Even when it's the blues of the "Yokada Yokada/The Rumproller" medley, Cline manages to infuse the music with an off-kilter sensibility that references Hill's quirky mannerisms, but remains wholly familiar to anyone who has followed his own work over the years. With his sextet of highly flexible players, Cline has fashioned an homage that clearly references its source, while at the same time feeling completely within Cline's own musical universe. Hill will no doubt be proud.