Andrew Hill: Smokestack (1963) Blue Note

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.

Selection 1: Verne (Hill)

.  .  .

Selection 2: 30 Pier Avenue  (Hill)

.  .  .

Artists

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.

Tracklist

  • 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

Music

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.

Harry’s Place

Andrew Hill at Montreux, 1975

Roy Haynes, Newport All Stars, Sydney, Australia, 1972

Collector’s Corner

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.

Blue Note 80 have issued a stereo edition, which is more attractively priced. The title track Smokestack below – you know what LJC thinks, whether you agree or not, welcome other opinions .

LJC

8 thoughts on “Andrew Hill: Smokestack (1963) Blue Note

  1. Accustomed to hearing that this or that horn player, or drummer is “instantly recognizable” I blush at how often I don’t recognize a good many of them. But it’s instant with Andrew Hill – the writing is very much his own. Having seen a number of so so Smokestack reviews I’ve never listened til now. 30 PIER AVENUE. Yes! VERNE and likely more awaits. Cecil Taylor on Blue Note is so very out. Prefer a lot of his earlier stuff, but see no comparison with that Taylor and the Hill here.

  2. I also have the mono edition and have always enjoyed the energy created with this unusual structure .It has always seemed obvious to me that Hill did not want the standard rhythmic support
    and therefore let the bass players freely improvise behind him . Add to that the Haynes chatter on snare and you create propulsion as opposed to normal rhythmic support. I think if you focus on Hills piano and you allow the others to become background support you can get to where/what Hill was trying to achieve. I did buy the 1995 Capitol CD issue for the 4 alternate takes but the re-mix is absolutely woeful even though Cuscuna produced the re-issue.

  3. Hello LJC, thank you for post on smokestack!
    I certainly understand that this record is not for everyone but I somehow find a haunted disjointed beauty to it. I have the same mono version as yours that I picked up years ago.
    Just a few months ago I found the connoisseur series CD so I now can hear it in stereo.
    I see you mention Cecil Taylor, to be honest I struggle to listen to unit structures and Conquistador. To each his own 🙂

  4. Got to say LJC I completely agree with your comments, hard as I have tried to live this album. The two tracks posted are indeed the highlights and I’m happy to have spent a mere £20 on the BN80.

    I hadn’t noticed before but the front cover has “SMOKESTACK” but the rear and labels show “SMOKE STACK”; I wonder which is the intention?

  5. I never really entered into Hill’s universe, except “Point of Departure”. I somewhat find him overrated. I know it can be sacrilege but i think part of the Hill’s hype comes from the Blue Note cult.

  6. I agree, a difficult one to love.And I generally love Andrew Hill. No lift to be found. “Dour” is an apt expression. This one doesn’t carry over time for me.

    Daniel

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  7. I suspect you’re not alone in finding Smokestack hard to love. Many years ago I had what I think was a Liberty era pressing but there was something strange about it and despite being in relatively good condition it had excessive surface noise throughout and I eventually got rid of it. Over the years I looked out for a replacement copy but without luck — and then the BN 80 reissue came along. The perfect opportunity to replace this dour, demanding, knotty record. I endlessly sample tracks on YT or wherever and….still haven’t bought theBN 80 edition as a replacement.

    I think the fundamental problem is that the two bassists format simply doesn’t work very well in this particular instance. There is no doubt that it can but it doesn’t here. When I try to listen to Smokestack I hear too much playing going on and not enough listening. I think that I have come to the conclusion that with greater preparation and perhaps greater clarity of intent Smokestack could have been a good record. But for now, it remains an Andrew Hill that I am prepared to do without — despite it having what to my mind is one of the greatest of BN covers…

    Oh, yes. For an example of a record with two bassists that does work — besides Taylor’s Conquistador! — try the almost unknown but marvellous Sans Tambour Ni Trompette by Martial Solal (RCA Victor). I think what both of these records demonstrate is that if you have two bassists then they have to be doing something very different to each other. If they aren’t then it just sounds like…too much bass — and I think that is what happens with Smokestack.

    Still, I would love to be persuaded otherwise. Perhaps others will comment and we shall all be converted and find Smokestack a truly great Andrew Hill record, its only problem being our lack of understanding and appreciation.

  8. You read my mind. Just as the needle hit the groove on my 80th anniversary issue of this LP a week ago I headed to LJC to find a Smokestack-shapred gap in the blog, glad to see it now filled in.

    Nice wrote up, and on balance you’re probably right that the experimental lineup isn’t always a knockout, but I rather like the weird looseness in feel. Then again, I’m a Cecil Taylor fan.

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