This is one of the toughest Andrew Hill records to get your head around. Many of the compositions feel like Hill’s stream of consciousness—ideas, thoughts and emotions are on full display without traditional structures or tonal centers. Some of these resolve into beautiful melodic fragments, but those moments are fleeting. It’s what fascinates and frustrates me about ’Smokestack’—sometimes my listening experience is that of pleasant surprise, while other times I feel like he’s just gotten an idea developed into something interesting and tuneful, and then killed it off prematurely before it had a chance to really take flight. But it’s impossible to know Hill’s mind, and the fact that I keep coming back to it even after an unsatisfying listening session must say something. It’s certainly compelling even it if isn’t always easy to listen to. It’s not exactly free jazz, but it’s not a toe-tapper of a hard bop session either. The presence of TWO bassists is an interesting choice. Richard Davis Is in a role I’d describe as “lead bass” while Eddie Khan is bassist in a more traditional rhythmic sense. So Hill and Davis are on the frontline while Khan and drummer Roy Haynes hold down the pulse (or what passes for pulse in these compositions where the time signatures likely read “perpetual change”). This is most starkly on display in “Wailing Wall” where Davis goes arco and his bowed lead lines do in fact wail in a way that borders on the unsettling, while Khan holds that low end down fiercely. As a counterpoint, “Verne” which Hill composed for his wife is a beautiful ballad that one might expect to hear on a more traditional jazz piano trio record. This was Hill’s second session for Blue Note, recorded this date in 1963, though held for release until 1966. Challenging music. Not for the squeamish
Mysterious. Innovative. Gripping. Endlessly fascinating. Jackie McLean’s ‘One Step Beyond’ is the first in a loose “trio” of albums that includes McLean’s ‘Destination…Out!’ and trombonist Grachan Moncur’s ‘Evolution’ as they all share quite a bit of musical DNA and personnel. I hesitate to call them a trilogy as I’m not certain that was anyone’s artistic intent, though hearing them together in any sequence feels like a “whole” listening experience. This album is extremely well-titled: McLean had clearly heard the war cries of Ornette Coleman and @johncoltrane pushing the boundaries of modal jazz, and this session reflects McLean’s desire to put his own stamp on their approach by keeping hard bop in the mix and forming a unique melodic frontline (vibes, trombone and alto) who create that mysterious atmosphere that does feel “beyond”. Trombonist Grachan Moncur’s two compositions have an eerie, somewhat dark approach and an occasional unsettling undercurrent (“Ghost Town” is well-titled) that veer into somewhat disonnant territory—the band isn’t exactly out to lunch here, but definitely waiting for a table. McLean’s two songs go down a bit smoother, but just a bit—his alto still retains its acerbic bite and the while the structures and playing are rooted in blues/hard bop, it’s swing with sharp elbows. Bobby Hutcherson wields two instruments of power: vibraphone and space. The effortlessness with which he wields both is often mind-blowing. While bassist Eddie Khan holds the rhythmic ebb and flow accountable, he and the rest of the group are perpetually challenged, underscored by, and inspired by 17 year old drummer Tony Williams. In particular, the dialogue between Williams and Hutcherson is MESMERIZING and sounds especially clear on this Music Matters 45RPM 2XLP edition. This is one helluva band, and they made one helluva record. For awhile, I was obsessed with ‘Destination…Out!’ and thought it was the best of the three. Then I got sucked into the vortex of Moncur’s ‘Evolution’ and that LP rose to the top of the heap. Guess which record is in heavy rotation now?