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Jazz legend Hill dies

Innovative pianist and composer was 75

Andrew Hill, the jazz pianist and composer heralded as the next Thelonious Monk in the early 1960s who created adventurous and groundbreaking music up until his death, died early Friday morning in Jersey City, N.J. He was 75.

Hill, who made his first recordings as a leader in 1963, had been enjoying career renaissance over the last several years while battling lung cancer for the last three. He had recorded five new albums over the last eight years and seen a number of his titles receive prominent reissues. In addition, Hill’s music and stylistic innovations have been increasing added to the jazz idiom; guitarist Nels Cline made an entire album of Hill’s music last year that was one of the year’s best-reviewed jazz discs.

A week before his death, Berklee College of Music announced that Hill would be receiving an honorary doctorate of music degree in May “for their achievements in the world of music, and for enduring contributions to American and international culture.” Last year, he was voted jazz composer of the year by the Jazz Journalists Assn.

Born June 30, 1931 in Chicago, he studied with the classical composer Paul Hindemith and as a teen gigged with musicians traveling through Chicago such as Miles Davis. He recorded his debut in 1955, “So in Love With the Sound of Andrew Hill,” and moved to New York in 1961 to work with Dinah Washington. He was briefly in Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s band, based in Los Angeles, and in 1963, he inked with Blue Note Records where label founder Alfred Lion dubbed him the new Monk.

Hill came of age as the post-bebop movement known as hard bop gave way to free jazz and rather than discard the rudiments of harmony and melody as the free players had, Hill extended hard bop tenets into a freer realm. His unique style, grounded yet filled with powerful improvisations, gave his recordings of the 1960s, particularly “Judgment,” “Point of Departure” and “Black Fire” a distinction that few of peers’ recordings shared. While those records did not necessarily alter the shape of jazz at the time, his albums from 1963 and ’64 have become landmarks that signaled a new direction for jazz, one that has been taken into consideration by countless jazz musicians over the last two decades.

Explaining his goal in performance, he told Jazztimes last year, “These magic moments, when the rhythms and harmonies extend themselves and jell together and the people become another instrument. These are things that are priceless and can’t be learned; they can only be felt.”

He made 14 albums for Blue Note in the 1960s, some of which were not issued for years or even decades after the sessions; his 1975 disc “Pax” was released last year by Blue Note and in 31 years its historical importance had grown monumentally. The New York Times said of “Passing Ships,” “the best jazz album of 2003 was recorded in 1969.”

Like many jazz musicians, Hill went into teaching, becoming Colgate University’s composer in residence in the early ’70s after earning his doctorate there. He also taught in public schools and prisons in California and eventually settled at Portland State University in Oregon, where he established the school’s Summer Jazz Intensive.

Hill recorded for several labels in the 1970s and ’80s, making several well-received albums for the Soul Note label between 1980 and 1986. He was brought back into the Blue Note fold when the label was rejuvenated, but it wasn’t until the indie label Palmetto issued “Dusk” in 2000 that Hill would start to earn kudos again from the jazz world. Down Beat, the premier jazz periodical, named it album of the year.

“Time Lines,” his return to Blue Note in 2006, was widely heralded as well. In November, Hill performed the music of “Passing Ships” in concert, a performance that Daily Variety’s review said “his playing — imbued by a decidedly spiritual, unapologetically cerebral tone — remains one of the most distinctive survivors of (1960s free jazz). … Hill refuses to surrender to stasis.”

He is survived by his wife Joanne Robinson Hill.

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