Pianist Andrew Hill lives in his own uncompromising conception of time, and his audience is bound to be limited by definition. Nevertheless, a larger-than-usual Wednesday night throng turned up at the Bakery to hear Hill’s first Los Angeles gig in more than a decade, and they heard an adventurous, sometimes baffling stream of jazz.
From the beginning of his career, Hill has pushed the envelope with a unique style that seemed rhythmically out of kilter with hard-bop rhythm sections and soloists. Blue Note Records’ late founder Alfred Lion thought that Hill was one of his last great discoveries, sticking with the pianist over a series of probing, highly regarded albums in the 1960s.
With his current trio, the jazzman’s music reached levels of such polyrhythmic independence that the unwary listener might be excused for guessing that the musicians were out of sync. Hill, 62, plays pretty much the way he did in the 1960s, deliberately fighting whatever prevailing grooves the rhythm section may be able to generate, following his own internal clock. But in this case, there were precious few grooves to battle against, for bassist Scott Colley and drummer Nasheet Waits were often in a loose, rhythmically irregular frame of mind themselves.
The combination clicked during the opening number, which kicked off with a moody, near-funereal, yet strangely absorbing solo display by Hill and took flight when an insistent six-note ostinato from Colley created an anchor for Hill and Waits. But the second composition sounded fractured and directionless, the polyrhythms imploding on themselves with no open space to breathe, coming to a total standstill during the laborious drum solo. Toward the end of the first set, when Colley set up a running pattern that Waits finally picked up on, Hill continued to stay stubbornly out of the pocket.
This music is fascinating to contemplate, and you have to hand it to Hill for sticking to his guns over the years. On this night, it was clear that the trio knew how to play in this acoustically live room, with Waits doing an especially good job of underplaying and balancing his drums against his colleagues.
Yet no matter how frantic the tempos, most of this music lacked true emotional heat, the quality that can draw an audience into even the densest avant-garde jungles.