Black Fire: Dana Hall's band celebrates music of Andrew Hill

Back in the late 1980s, Chicago drummer-bandleader Dana Hall made a musical discovery that has fascinated him ever since.

When a revived Blue Note Records began reissuing albums that had been collecting dust in the vault, Hall naturally began snapping up recordings featuring master drummers such as Elvin Jones, Roy Haynes and Tony Williams. All had at least one element in common: The great drummers had collaborated with the Chicago born-and-raised jazz innovator Andrew Hill.

Soon Hall found himself captivated by pianist Hill's music, as documented on recordings such as "Black Fire" (featuring Haynes, saxophonist Joe Henderson and bassist Richard Davis) and "Judgment!" (with Jones, Davis and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson).

"When I first heard those, it was like nothing else, in terms of the compositions," recalls Hall, now a widely admired drummer-composer and an associate professor of jazz studies and ethnomusicology at DePaul University.

"I was completely lost; I couldn't understand anything they were doing, but I knew it was very difficult. So I started purchasing more."

Thus began Hall's near-obsession with music of Hill, who was born in Chicago in 1937, played accordion as a child, taught himself piano as a teenager and, improbably, caught the ear of the great classical composer Paul Hindemith, who informally taught him. Work with Charlie Parker and Miles Davis deepened Hill's resume and experience, as did collaborations with Chicagoan Dinah Washington in New York and Rahsaan Roland Kirk in Los Angeles in the early 1960s. Hill spent most of that decade back East.

Despite a prolific career of composing, performing, recording and teaching, Hill died – in 2007 at age 75 – obscure outside the world of jazz and inadequately celebrated within it (though those Blue Note reissues and subsequent Blue Note recordings in the late 1980s, '90s and thereafter heightened interest in his music).

Drummer Hall considers Hill's work so substantial, original, creative and rich in potential that he has spent years studying and transcribing it and, more recently, giving it a degree of attention it richly deserves. Last year, Hall led his quartet in dynamic transformations of Hill's music at the University of Chicago's Logan Center for the Arts. In August, he presented "The Andrew Hill Project with Black Fire," an expanded, octet version of the venture at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park (I was out of town and missed this performance).

And he just launched an extended engagement at Andy's Jazz Club, where he's leading the Black Fire quartet every Tuesday night through October.

During a recent performance, the music of Hill proved every bit as intriguing, challenging and ephemeral as Hill's own recordings have suggested. In Hill's "Pumpkin," drummer Hall's constantly shifting rhythmic accents kept listeners perpetually off balance. In works such as Hill's "Black Fire" and "Ode to Von" (a salute to Chicago tenor saxophone giant Von Freeman), the rhythmic vocabulary of saxophonist Geof Bradfield's melody lines constantly shifted: Flurries of running sixteenth notes suddenly gave way to unhurried quarter notes, which in turn were abruptly interrupted by pauses and other disturbances.

Harmonically, too, this music defied convention, Hill's strange chord structures and streaks of dissonance as tantalizing as they were provocative.

What makes this music work?

"I'm fairly certain it's the marriage of harmony, rhythm and melody … he doesn't marginalize or privilege any one of those ingredients," says Hall. "Like many other great composers that were (Hill's) contemporaries and came before him – like (Duke) Ellington, like (Thelonious) Monk, like Sun Ra – Hill was a master of color.

"(Hill) always said that he had a special relationship with rhythm, so it's not ahead of the beat – it's surrounding and encompassing the beat. And the (unorthodox) rhythms make entirely new melodic structures."

In Hill's music, more than one key can be piled atop another (as in some of Igor Stravinsky's work), melody lines can take wildly circuitous journeys and compositions often carry unusual structures.

"It's really a very organic way of thinking about music … that chaos can exist within structure and order," says Hall. "That freedom can exist within structure and order and vice versa. People like (pianists) Jason Moran and Vijay Iyer have exposed themselves to those ideas and brought them into their music."

Not that it's easy. Because little of Hill's work has been put to score paper, musicians intrigued by it need to spend long hours with the recordings, attempting to transcribe a music that resists standard notation. That's part of the reason, Hall says, that so few jazz musicians today have taken up Hill's cause: The challenges of codifying it on paper and developing it in rehearsal and performance are time-consuming and formidable.

Or, as Hall puts it, with coy understatement, "There are lots of nooks and crannies in the music."

At Andy's, Hall is exploring those strange corners with the aforementioned Bradfield, vibraphonist Justin Thomas and bassist Clark Sommers. During a recent performance, the quartet sounded a bit tentative, no surprise considering the difficulties of the music and the newness of the engagement. But there was no resisting the mercurial nature of Bradfield's lines, the striking economy of Hall's drum work, the exquisite color of Thomas' vibes playing and the indispensable underpinning of Sommers' bass.

Hall sees this engagement as the continuation of a venture he hopes to take in multiple directions. He says he would love to launch future explorations of Hill's oeuvre with the pianist Myra Melford, the guitarists Bill Frisell and Nels Cline (who has done his own investigations into Hill's work) and multi-instrumentalist Howard Levy, among others.

CHICAGO

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