Vinyl Spotlight: Andrew Hill, Black Fire (Blue Note 4151)

March 14, 2017 /
  • Stereo Liberty reissue circa 1966-1970
  • “A DIVISION OF LIBERTY RECORDS, INC.” on both labels
  • “VAN GELDER” stamped in dead wax

Personnel:

  • Joe Henderson, tenor saxophone
  • Andrew Hill, piano
  • Richard Davis, bass
  • Roy Haynes, drums

Recorded November 8, 1963 at Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey
Originally released March 1964

First and foremost, I think this is one of the greatest album covers of all time. I love the juxtaposition of the bold strips of various red hues with the cartoony black-and-white illustration of fire beneath. Reid Miles’ cover design speaks volumes and yet again complements the music incredibly well.

From the time Andrew Hill arrived at Blue Note in 1963, it didn’t take long for the pianist-composer to venture “out” and away from bop. Hill first recorded for the label in September of that year with Joe Henderson (Our Thing, Blue Note 4152), then with Hank Mobley the following month (No Room for Squares, Blue Note 4149). Black Fire, Hill’s first album as a leader for Blue Note, was recorded in November 1963 and gives us an early glimpse at Hill loosely conforming to the higher degree of harmonic and melodic structure commonly found in bop. Blue Note would continue to document Hill’s musical explorations in the coming months, laying to tape Smokestack, Judgment!, then finally Hill’s avant-garde classic Point of Departure in March 1964 — the same month that Eric Dolphy recorded his landmark album Out to Lunch! for the label.

This album is about as far out as I’m willing go into the free jazz sea. I’m not a fan of free jazz and don’t know much about it, but from the little I do know I’m willing to say that Black Fire tows the line between post bop and the avant-garde. The sounds here tend to invoke a subtle feeling of panic, but much like another favorite mid-sixties quartet album of mine, Black Fire maintains a surprising degree of calm and quietude through all of the chaos. We also get to hear Roy Haynes on an uncommon Blue Note date and he doesn’t disappoint, demonstrating his patented pinpoint precision and tight snare drum work throughout.

  • DaveS

    Great album. Never thought of it as free jazz though. Out yes; free jazz no.

    • Interesting, Dave. So there’s commonly a distinction between “out” and “free”, I take it? Where does “post bop” fit into that? Let me clarify that I’m not being sarcastic here, I would seriously love to hear your thoughts on it, especially since I don’t know a lot about any of these sub-genres. 🙂

    • CliffordAllen

      Yeah, I’d call it boundary-pushing post bop; it’s harmonically knotty and rhythmically varied, but the improvisations still maintain taut connection to the overall structure of each tune and everything feels contained, even when it scales (not musical scales, but physical sense of scale) dramatically up/outward. Placing this next to, say, a Sunny Murray date from a couple years later would give quite drastic comparative results.