At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)
The late-career renaissance of pianist-composer Andrew Hill — which effectively began in 1999, with the release of Dusk (Palmetto), and ended only with his death in 2007, at 75 — suggests the fulfillment of every hopeful saw about staying the course, whatever the odds.
Hill maintained an inspired obduracy about his own truth, going all the way back to ageless time capsules like Black Fire and Judgment!, which brought an incipient avant-garde value system into direct contact with Blue Note’s hard-bop machine. (Emphaticism was a trademark of both camps; note that the label also released Andrew!!! and Compulsion!!!!! in the late ‘60s.)
For a substantial subset of musicians and deep listeners, Hill was always major — a far-sighted Chicago native who merged ecumenical curiosity with an enduring foothold in the blues, and stretched the post-bop vocabulary about as far as it could go. But in terms of audience acceptance and even critical endorsement, Hill was on the fringe for most of his long career. (Writing this entry, I was startled to note that he gets barely a nod in Gary Giddins’ Visions of Jazz. Giddins, of course, covered Hill elsewhere; still, it’s a telling omission.)
Hill had inched toward mainstream approval by the mid-2000s, buoyed in part by the vocal advocacy of pianistic heirs like Frank Kimbrough, Myra Melford and Jason Moran. (For Moran, the relationship bloomed into that of mentor and protégé, especially after the death of his original guru, Jaki Byard.)
I had the good fortune of catching Hill on nearly a dozen occasions, including a few club dates with his Point of Departure band, stocked with younger players like trumpeter Ron Horton, who served as de facto musical director. Time Lines, which marked Hill’s second return to Blue Note, features several of these core figures: Gregory Tardy on tenor saxophone and clarinets, John Hébert on bass and Eric McPherson on drums. On trumpet is Charles Tolliver, who had worked with Hill in the ‘70s.
Time Lines received universal acclaim — though as its title implies, it wasn’t a new statement so much as the latest point on a continuum. In fact, one of those concerts I’m lucky to have seen was a repertory celebration of Passing Ships, which Hill recorded for Blue Note in 1969, though it only saw release in 2003. The concert, a one-time-only affair, came just months after the release of Time Lines. At the time, I was duly impressed by the ensemble effort but honestly most knocked-out by the rhythm section, the same one as on Time Lines:
Mr. Hill’s pianism had been more properly featured in the concert’s meditative first half, with the bassist John Hebert and the drummer Eric McPherson. Their interaction was wellspring-deep, seemingly in tune on a subconscious level. Rhythms ebbed, surged and overlapped, all by some secret logic. Mr. Hill’s casually solemn abstractions were both gorgeous and gripping.
The same was true of another historic Hill performance, at Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan on March 29, 2007. This was a lunchtime trio concert, featuring an original four-movement liturgical work that Hill had titled “Before I.” The music felt profoundly meditative, with a feathery balance of deep consonance and rippling turbulence. It turned out to be Hill’s final performance; he died just a few weeks later.
Somewhere there’s high-quality video of the Trinity Church concert. (It streamed live, and the archive stayed up for a while. I watched it several more times after filing my review.) In the absence of that document, Time Lines will stand as the definitive late text of Hill’s career. I’m not saying it’s a consolation prize, though consolation is surely some part of its lasting charm.