On Friday, 8 November 1963, Andrew Hill walked into Van Gelder Studio at Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, for his maiden recording session for Blue Note Records. Following a second stint at the studio the following day, he emerged with Black Fire. It marked the beginning of what would be the first, and longest, of three separate stints (1963-70, 1989-90 and 2006) with Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff’s iconic New York-based jazz label.
But anyone that regarded Hill, then a 32-year-old pianist/composer originally from Chicago, as a recording novice was very mistaken. He had, in fact, recorded a brace of 10” singles for the small Ping label, in 1956, and that same year cut a long-forgotten trio album (So In Love) for Warwick, which consisted mostly of standards and didn’t get released until 1960. More significantly, just prior to his debut Blue Note session, he worked on albums by multi-instrumentalist Roland Kirk (before the latter prefixed his name with Rahsaan) and vibraphonist Walt Dickerson. It’s also worth noting that Miles Davis must have held Hill in high regard, as he hired the pianist to play on some of his band’s Chicago gigs in the mid-to-late 50s.
Brimming with passion
Though Black Fire was only his second solo recording, it’s a mature, fully-formed collection of self-penned material revealing that Hill had already discovered his own distinctive voice in jazz. His sui generis approach to melody, harmony, rhythm and compositional structure has no parallel, except, perhaps, in the similarly idiosyncratic figure of Thelonious Monk, also a pianist/composer who created his own personalised form of jazz.
Monk certainly exerted a big influence on Hill, especially in regard to the latter’s angular chromatic melodies and jaunty rhythms, but, as Black Fire reveals, Hill’s concept was entirely individual. In fact, the latter’s take on jazz was so different from the bop mentality that largely prevailed at Blue Note that he found it difficult to find simpatico musicians on the same wavelength. This resulted in a great many of his later sessions for the label (such as Dance With Death and Passing Ships) being shelved until later dates.
Thankfully, on Black Fire, Hill doesn’t have this problem and leads a fine, intuitive quartet that seems to be wholly in tune with him as well as the sometimes exacting demands of his material. The estimable Joe Henderson, renowned for his robust, growling tenor saxophone (and who, in 1963, had just released his Blue Note debut LP, Page One) is the only horn player present, while the rhythm section consists of Hill’s fellow Chicagoan, bassist Richard Davis, and noted drummer Roy Haynes (who, at 39, was the oldest member of the quartet). The latter brought with him much experience and a highly-nuanced polyrhythmic style that would both complement and enhance Hill’s music.