Andrew Hill

Lift Every Voice (Blue Note 1969)

It’s a damn shame that Andrew Hill has gotten the short end of the stick when it comes to the jazz canon. His brilliance has been overshadowed amidst an era festooned with Mingus, dual Coltranes, Miles Davis, Monk and other jazz pioneers who traveled to the edges of their art in a psychedelic age. Lift Every Voice even gets forgotten as a mere curio in his own discography in favor of earlier works like Black Fire and Point of Departure. Admittedly, those are some of my favorite Blue Note albums of the 60s, but Lift Every Voice is a unique statement of purpose from a man interested in reconciling the seeming disparate worlds of vocal choir, jazz, gospel, soul and the avant-garde. It’s alternately in love with a nostalgia for the music that formed the foundation for his love of music and an obsession with pushing the boundaries of what could be possible within the confines of jazz. It’s refreshingly cozy and familiar, yet proud of the jagged edges that develop over the course of the band’s performances.

I could bask for a long while in the interplay between Hill’s emotive piano playing and the harmonies of the nine-person choir that switches from a banshee wail to a gorgeous and mellow intersection of voice that simply floors me. Lift Every Voice also gains its primordial power from the fact that it was recorded over the course of two sessions with different backing bands. Normally, this would lead to an incongruous union, but one session was led by Lee Morgan while the other was spearheaded by Woody Shaw. Morgan was dealing with addiction at the time which may explain why his trumpet playing has a such a weary, melancholy tone. Sadly, he was murdered onstage by his common-law wife a few years later at the literal nadir of his criminally short existence on this planet. On the other hand, Shaw is all fire, piss and vinegar as he attacks each trumpet solo as if he wanted to blast each song to the moon. It doesn’t hurt that a triumvirate of Miles Davis’ fusion era lineup of Ron Carter, Bernie Maupin and Carlos Garnett have their hands in the cookie jar here too.

Don’t go looking for a reinvention of the wheel here. There is no psychedelic jazz fusion chops to be found in this 1969 session. It is simultaneously square in its love of tradition and adventurous in the ways the band tweaks the building blocks that led them all to this point in time. Lift Every Voice is grand in scope and paints a vast panorama as Hill proves once and for all that he was a stone cold genius at orchestrating eclectic strands and synthesizing it into something entirely unlike anything else of its time. It’s the kind of album one can dive into and spend hours appreciating every little nuance, twist and turn because it is so dense and complex, yet loose, simple, flowing and free. Yes, that is a bit of an oxymoron, but so is this album that lovingly engages the ghosts of its past and gazes into the crystal ball of what could have been

Joe McPhee

Nation Time (CJR 1971, reissued by Atavistic in 2002)

I’ve heard the terms “free-jazz” and “fire music” before, but these were merely words used to describe noisy jazz records I liked until purchasing a reissue of Joe McPhee’s Nation Time. This sounds like yet another slice of hyperbole littering this website, but this music awoke something inside me each time it played. It stood apart from Ornette, John and Alice Coltrane, Archie Shepp and others whose improvisations altered my musical worldview. These guys and gals showed me that enjoyment can be found in chaos, but none of them married it to such relentlessly funky and aggressive rhythms. This music was free and fierce, but strangely accessible and endlessly listenable. I started searching for something similar, but haven’t found it yet, but Luther Jackson’s Funky Donkey came damn close.

Nation Time is drawn from a 1970 live set and consists of three compositions. I always found the title track to be the centerpiece of this set. It’s strength lies in how McPhee and his band straddle melody and mayhem. However, recent listens have led me to realize that it’s follow-up “Shakey Jake” is just as mind blowing with its synthesis of free-jazz, James Brown and Funkadelic. Everyone is blowing and beating their hearts out simultaneously Chaos gives way to collaboration and it transforms into something special that was only attempted by Ronald Shannon Jackson during the 80s. However, It’s the only time that I’ve heard McPhee explore this facet of his music. I love most phases of McPhee’s career, but Nation Time and 1971’s Trinity hit heights unmatched by any jazz artist of those two years.

Alice Coltrane Transfiguration

Disc One:

Disc Two:

I owned Ptah, the El Daoud for years and filed it away in a corner for that one glorious afternoon where it would magically burst from its shelving and place itself into my cd player. Sadly, that day never came and its explosive potential remained hidden. Other albums which currently occupy this purgatory include Bill Fox;s Transit Byzantium, a couple Derek Bailey records and some Mo Wax comps that I believe to future obsessions hampered by the fact that I just haven’t given enough of a shit to physically place them into a cd tray. Alice was one of the few who escaped the force of my musical inertia and the proverbial boo-boo jeebies were blown loose by what was heard, loved and appreciated.

An ex-girlfriend amplified this newfound love as she enjoyed the free-jazz as background music for cooking, cleaning and the like. Who was I to complain and I gained an even more thorough love of Mrs. Coltrane music during such mundane tasks as cleaning toilets and gutting fish. I think these actions made me love her even more. One album wasn’t enough and I immediately snapped up the Sepia-Tone reissues of her 70s work when they released years back. They all shined like stars, but one was a literal supernova of free-form brilliance. It didn’t hurt that parts sounded like the sounds of a Pac-Man game filtered through a hallucinogenic sieve. In case you are unaware, Alice was married to John Coltrane and contributed to some of most brilliant works.

This is a live recording of her appearance at UCLA on April 16, 1978 and she is backed by Reggie Workman and Roy Haynes. Alice plays the organ and piano in a way I’ve never quite heard before. It is as if she is creating a sacred music or battling vicious demons. I’ve never been able to differentiate between each path. It contains the sounds of someone finding redemption and meaning through music and that is reason enough for you to click a friggin’ mouse.