It's a sobering comment on the current state of jazz music that one of the genre's most prodigious and well-rounded composers, Sam Rivers, is 82 and playing Wednesday nights at Will's Pub. And the most daring new music to be released in years on the Blue Note label is coming courtesy of a 70-year-old cancer victim.
Andrew Hill was a big part of "The New Thing" to take over jazz in the '60s a style that incorporated intense, freeform improvisations with densely structured and complex compositions. The pianist's work for Blue Note during that period especially his dark and propulsive Judgment album and his soaring 1966 sessions with Sam Rivers that wound up being issued under Rivers' name codified the label's approach to the sound and incorporated almost all of the scene's most important players. In addition to Rivers, Hill worked with new dynamos like Eric Dolphy and Bobby Hutcherson, as well as more seasoned Blue Note pros like Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard. This odd commingling of traditionalists yearning to break free and young risk-takers willing to acknowledge the genre's history resulted in dozens of groundbreaking albums … most of which Hill appeared on.
Sadly, the magic of that brief period didn't ensure jazz's future progression; instead it was more like a last hurrah for the genre's far-reaching creative impact. We're now at the point where Diana Krall is compared (favorably) to Ella Fitzgerald and Wynton Marsalis is by law the only person whose opinions on jazz count.
Amazingly, considering this environment, the folks at Blue Note not only decided to bring Andrew Hill back to the label for the third time he put out two middling albums on the then-struggling label in the late '80s but also to put considerable marketing muscle behind an album brimming with the fiery innovation and decidedly iconoclastic style that made Hill's '60s work so revolutionary.
Ironically, though, in this collection of music it's the old jazz cats who are encouraging the young lions to roam free. Hill collaborates on Time Lines with trumpet player Charles Tolliver, an underrated player whose contributions to many late-'60s and early-'70s albums were the height of the New Thing's "structured improvisations." The rest of this quintet John Hebert (bass), Greg Tardy (tenor sax, clarinet, bass clarinet), Eric McPherson (drums) are skilled young session men, primarily with experience with below-the-radar "modern traditionalists" like Dave Douglas, Dave Scott and Will Sellenraad.
Hill's unusual piano attack and his stream-of-consciousness structures coax stunning performances out of everyone. Hearing Tardy step up and go note-for-note with Hill on the circular and sprawling "Time Lines" is impressive, but not nearly as impressive as the solo Tardy lays down in the middle of the song a solo that dares to stomp all over Hill's lead.
Still, it must be said that Time Lines is not a happy album. It opens and closes with the funereal "Malachi," dedicated to the late Art Ensemble stalwart Malachi Favors. The opening version is full-band, while the album closer is a bittersweet solo piano version, and what comes between could hardly be described as easy listening. Whether due to Hill's ongoing battle with cancer or some other influence, Time Lines is an intensely reflective and subtly sad-sounding disc. Ferocity abounds sly, piano-banging passages in "Ry Round 1," McPherson's aggressive drumming on "Smooth" but it's always in small doses and usually seems fueled by anger and disappointment, rather than the joy of improvisation. Heavy minor chords pop in and out, cooperative melodies are approached and abandoned all are raw and emotional. And it's exactly the sort of jazz record that needs to be heard in this day and age.