Marked by beautiful melodies and countermelodies, angular phrases, odd bar structures, ambiguous harmonies, complex intervals, intense vamps and ostinatos, churning beats and elastic tempos, and a malleable emotional template, the compositions of Andrew Hill would seem ripe for deconstructive exploration by contemporary improvisers. But with the exception of a rather schematic quartet blowing date by Anthony Braxton for CIMP in 2000, outcat/prog-rock guitar hero Nels Cline's New Monastery is the first such recorded approach to Hill's iconic repertoire.
New Monastery is anything but a cover album. Bringing together bassist Devin Hoff and drummer Scott Amendola from from his longstanding unit, the Nels Cline Singers, occasional West Coast partners Andrea Parkins on accordion and electronics and Ben Goldberg on an array of clarinets, and cornetist Bobby Bradford, Cline takes full advantage of the orchestrational possibilities of this pianoless ensemble of individualists. He finds fascinating voicings that transform the source material while remaining faithful to the composer’s harmonic personality. He also makes intelligent use of juxtaposition strategies, mirroring Hill’s practice of transplanting fragments of motific material from one part of a form to another.
The seven tracks include four medleys and draw from 11 Hill pieces, nine composed in the early 1960s and two composed during Hill's East Coast renaissance of the past decade. Only on the concluding blowout, "Compulsion," propelled by Amendola's tribal drums and featuring a stirring sermon from Bradford's laconic coronet, and on "Not Sa No Sa," a '90s Hill tune that branches out from a Monkish (think "Little Rootie Tootie") three-note motif, does the leader skronk out in in a trimbrally extravagant manner. Otherwise Cline orchestrates his stylistic idiosyncrasies into the flow of the arrangements, functioning happily as a prodding, ensemble-oriented comper as often as he solos.
Consider the path of the Monk-influences medley "Reconciliation/New Monastery." On the opening section, Cline uncorks a spicily syncopated blues solo. This precedes a cogent Bradford-Goldberg (bass clarinet) dialogue, which devolves into a Cline-prodded rubato Goldberg-Parkins (accordion) call-and-response, before returning to tempo and the concluding theme.
He can hew—relatively speaking—to the straight and narrow as well: The "Yokada Yokada/The Rumproller" matchup captures the skittery quality of Hill's brighter-tempo lines, while his lyric declamation on "Dedication" frames a poignant Goldberg bass clarinet solo that counterstates Eric Dolphy's original on Point of Departure. Only the 23-minute centerpiece ("No Doubt/11/8/Dance with Death") seems at all forced or contrived.