Pianist-composer Andrew Hill has been actively extending the jazz tradition on nearly three dozen recordings since 1960. It may be Wilco guitarist Nels Cline's latest disc that invigorates Hill's cachet among younger-generation fans of adventurous music, though. Cline's New Monastery freely interprets compositions from the 70-year-old's wide-ranging oeuvre, including the title track "Dedication" from 1964's riveting Point of Departure to more recent tunes like the haunting "Dance With Death." Far from a typical tribute album, Cline essentially uses the pianist's tricky scores as a springboard for creating something entirely new.
The novelty begins with the band leader's arrangement of the pieces, which are often combined into mood-rich suites involving two or three separate titles. Then there's the unusual instrumentation involved: cornet, various clarinets, accordion, electric guitar, acoustic bass, drums, percussion, and considerable electronic effects. The soundscapes evoked by this eclectic electro-acoustic mix are vibrant, contemporary, and edge-of-your-seat compelling. Finally, the sextet's virtuosic players, including Bay Area luminaries (clarinetist Ben Goldberg and drummer Scott Amendola), more than meet the challenges of the music's labyrinthine improv possibilities. Respecting Hill's original vision, a free-feeling, risk-taking energy powers the performances throughout.
Next to Cline's ambitious effort, Hill's latest recording, Time Lines, seems relatively tame. But there's still much to recommend: the rare blend of abstraction and earthiness on the title track, the elegant rhythmic propulsion of "Ry Round 1," and the darkness that subverts the quasi-sentimentality of "Whitsuntide." Among the solid showings by the pianist's multigenerational quintet, the leader's own playing stands out for its tortuous melodic phrasing, heavy percussiveness, and quick-shifting rhythms and dynamics.
A master composer-improviser, Hill approaches his music with considerable subtlety, which may demand more patience from younger listeners. Thus, Cline's roaring interpretations may be the best bet for the uninitiated.