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Pianist Andrew Hill, one of the most distinctive, versatile, and important composers and improvisers of the last half-century, died of lung cancer this morning at his home in Jersey City. He was 75. Hill was born and raised in Chicago and cut his teeth on the local hard-bop scene, working with folks like Von Freeman and Malachi Favors, but it wasn’t until he hooked up with Blue Note Records in the mid-60s (after moving to New York to play with Roland Kirk) that he established himself as a major figure.
Beginning with Black Fire in 1964, Hill made a series of classics for the label that have slowly become recognized as part of the canon. His tunes were dense and filled with unexpected twists, both harmonically and rhythmically. During the 60s his work grew more edgy, and on his 1966 album Compulsion (just reissued by the label) he brought free jazz into the equation, with some particularly smoking horn work by Sun Ra saxophonist John Gilmore (one of his old Chicago running buddies) and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. But for the most part, Hill worked out of the post-bop model, even while his tunes demanded much more of his bandmates than the typical repertoire. He was quiet during the 70s, but enjoyed a late 80s renaissance that included a second stint with Blue Note. He spent the first half of the 90s teaching at Portland State University, then moved back to New York. After releasing a few albums for Palmetto earlier this decade he signed on for the final time with Blue Note, releasing the excellent Time Lines last year.
By all accounts Hill was a quiet, gentle man. And unlike so many veterans of the post-bop era, he never stopped pushing himself and his bandmates to create something new and fresh. One of the finer moments in my own life was sharing a taxi with him and his wife in Istanbul back in 2001, where he was performing at a jazz festival. He was as sweet and kind as anyone I’ve ever met, and considering his artistic genius, he was modest to a fault.