Mid-week bonus post, not related to modern vinyl reissues, but back in the realm of Blue Note originals. The focus remains music first, only incidentally the Collector angle. Why else collect something?
“LJC, any chance of doing a post on ‘Smokestack’? That’s one I would really like to see”
LJC reader Ed challenged me to write up Smokestack, the one Andrew Hill Blue Note in my collection I had omitted to review. OK, here goes, warning, it’s a mixed bag.
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Selection 2: 30 Pier Avenue (Hill)
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Andrew Hill, piano; Richard Davis, Eddie Khan, bass; Roy Haynes, drums; recorded Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, December 13, 1963, released two and a half years later, in August 1966, by my reckoning, Plastylite’s last pressing for Blue Note.
- Smokestack 5:00
- The Day After 5:07
- Wailing Wail 5:46
- Ode to Von 4:29
- Not So 6:24
- Verne 5:48
- 30 Pier Avenue 7:06
An unconventional quartet, with a constantly evolving mix of two bass players, Richard Davis and Eddie Khan. Davis is a colorist, adding melodic and percussive layers. Khan takes on the drummer’s time-keeping role, which leaves Roy Haynes sparring with Andrew Hill in the front line. An unconventional quartet leads to an unconventional outcome.
All Music puts the boot in:
“… with its long, winding modal improvisations and hazy song structures, it’s a lot less accessible than bop. Part of the problem is that Hill simply meanders throughout most of Smokestack, wandering off into quietly discordant sections that turn in on themselves. It’s subdued music that requires concentration, but doesn’t necessarily reward such effort.”
My verdict: this is a complex album, and it is a tough one to love.
Alfred Lion was a great champion of Andrew Hill, yet he held this session back two and a half years, to make way for Black Fire and Judgement!, and the iconic Point of Departure. I think Hill misjudged the free jazz license Lion gave him, overstepped the mark, and rowed it back on his subsequent more successful recordings. Smokestack was rushed out in August 1966, the 11th hour before the Liberty took control.
For me, the highlight of the album is Verne, the only track in trio format. Khan sits out, and the trio with Davis offers an alternative take on Bill Evans/ Scott Lafaro, piano/bass telepathy, but between Richard Davis and Andrew Hill. Hill’s piano offers a repeating melodic line embedded in delicate abstract tracery of notes. Davis echoes, mimics, and probes other directions. They are listening to each other, taking cues, that makes for good music.
The final track 30 Pier Avenue, address of The Lighthouse, serves up the most satisfying complexity. It too is challenging, but it works.
However the title track, Smokestack, is introspective, dour and dissonant, without resolution, redemption or swing. Cecil Taylor fans may like it. Hill’s figures and runs often repeat with small variation, experimenting to search out what works.Two basses do not provide enough structure to contain Hill’s free rambling inclinations. Many of Hill’s melodic lines deliberately wander out of key. Roy Haynes, whose rhythmically tight propulsion had him dubbed Snap Crackle, is here sparring with piano, in a similarly abstract combat role. You will have to be the judge if it works for you.
With more LPs waiting a spin, Smokestack returns to the shelves. Despite some rewarding tracks, not my favourite Andrew Hill album, and overall, not an uplifting listen.
Vinyl: BLP 4160 mono Plastylite, RVG, NY labels.
All Reid Miles covers for Andrew Hill are striking, and echo the experimental and sometimes unsettling tangents of the music. The cover of Smokestack is no exception, with Hill glimpsed partially through a large abstract shape, a textbook application of the Rule Of Thirds. Reid Miles eschews the obvious, not a smoking chimney in sight, an image which many lesser designers would have jumped to. “It’s called Smokestack, show smoking chimneystacks, no?” The focus is tightly drawn on Hill.
Andrew Hill at Montreux, 1975
In this listener’s opinion Hill works better with a full deck of musicians on board. This outing with two bass players is brave but not altogether successful.. LJC has reviewed eleven Andrew Hill albums, most in a positive light, some extremely positive – Passing Ships, Judgement!, Andrew!!!. Albums I’m more ambivalent about are Compulsion!!!!! Smokestack is an album I struggle to like, maybe I’m on my own with this one.. The excellent LT series “Dance With Death” awaiting review.
Smokestack is nevertheless quite a collectable Blue Note, and the cost of an original copy surprised me, as well as the number of copies which are described as “Mint, Unplayed”, which is perhaps less surprising. Four copies claim still in “shrink”,. which confirms some Blue Notes around this time were sold shrink wrapped, possibly by dealers/distributors.