With his inventive approach to composition for jazz ensemble, Andrew Hill has created a compact body of work that bridges the worlds of bebop, modal, "new thing," and third stream styles while sounding like nothing else on the planet. In the 1960s, his melodic, twisting compositions seemed radical -- despite their consonance as compared to the rest of the avant-garde. It was the deep and gracefully unfolding structures of Hill's works that led them to occupy their very own place in the jazz world. In recent years, many new listeners have caught up with Hill's music, finding for themselves the inherent freshness and exhilaration of his supple and ever-surprising mastery of musical time and space.
The assembly here, led by guitarist Nels Cline, is well-qualified to offer what the album’s subtitle claims is "a view into" Hill's music. Cline himself is a gifted guitar texturalist with chops to spare, and he is almost always willing to let those chops take a back seat to the music. Both the superbly multi-faceted clarinetist Ben Goldberg and veteran Bobby Bradford -- heard here on cornet -- have worked with Hill himself, and the experience lends confidence to their command of these challenging works (including classics like "McNeil Island," originally heard on Black Fire, and "New Monastery," from Hills’s 1964 masterpiece Point of Departure).
Drummer Scott Amendola and contrabass player Devin Hoff are -- thanks to their work with Cline in the trio Nels Cline Singers -- more than well-aligned with their session leader. Amendola and Hoff are especially impressive here in the way they find, or perhaps create, a perfect sonic space as ensemble players in a music with rhythmic imperatives driven more by melodic motifs and phrasing than by groove. Indeed, the entire ensemble plays close attention to the weave-like motion at the heart of Hill's approach, and thus stays mostly within the composer's conception. Cline himself serves a double role, some times using a traditional warm jazz tone to approximate the part of Hill's darting and gently jabbing piano, at other times cranking up the effects to mangle his tone into pointillist textures and atmospheric splatters.
And it is Cline's tasteful and imaginative tone-mangling, especially when in consort with Andrea Parkins' drifting, evocative accordion -- also treated with effects -- that, at least in part, offers the advertised "view into": The microtonal-tinged and complex harmonic density of the electronics seems quite at home in Hill's unique soundworld. These episodes are perhaps the most interesting parts of an almost-always interesting record.
Once in a while the ensemble drifts dangerously close to a not-so-fresh-sounding improv frenzy that seems slightly at odds with the precision and clarity of the material. But such sections are few and short, and are ultimately rescued by the quality of the ensemble interaction; it's as if the players quite suddenly, and collectively, come to their senses.
It should be mentioned that Bobby Bradford simply shines throughout. His poetic approach to breath and melodic line and the subtly shifting, vocal, expressive tone of his cornet seem to be woven as an integral and crucial part of the music's flow. This is what a master musician sounds like.