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LP (12" album, 33 rpm)
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Black Fire (The Rudy Van Gelder Edition)
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Audio CD, Extra tracks, Original recording remastered, July 13, 2004
Vinyl, December 23, 2014
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Considered a modern jazz classic, 'Black Fire,' by jazz pianist and composer, Andrew Hill, will be reissued as part of an overall Blue Note 75th anniversary vinyl initiative spearheaded by current Blue Note Records President, Don Was. 'Black Fire' was originally released in 1964 and is Hill's second studio album. This is also his Blue Note debut.
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Black Fire was Hill’s debut album, recorded at the tail end of 1963 and released early in 1964. All of the songs on the album are his. They are played by a killer quartet of Hill, tenor saxist Joe Henderson, bassist Richard Davis and the astonishingly productive drummer Roy Haynes. Henderson was a killer player even this early in his career. Davis was among the very best transitional bassists, laying down strong walking bass lines but flexible in accent and note placement. It’s interesting to listen to his solo outings on this album: unlike, say, his near contemporaries Scott LaFaro and Charlie Haden, he sticks resolutely in the deeper ranges of the bass but his rhythm placement and note choices are resolutely modern. Haynes was –is, still, at 93—a miracle, an endlessly inventive drummer with big ears who combined fire and taste I n his accompanying and soloing. One of the pleasures of this album is that he is spotlighted so often. The first cut starts with ensemble theme, then Hill soloing, then Haynes soloing accompanied by Davis on bass, then only Henderson’s turn, and the ensemble close.
Placing Haynes’s solo offering early in the piece highlights the deeply percussive, tricky rhythm aspect of Hill’s composing. Hill liked to play with time –thorny, jagged themes, the way he attacked piano also –he seems to have struck the keys in much the manner Monk did: a hard sharp attack, the notes slightly slowed, as though each individual note in a run had slid slightly behind the beat. The comparison with Monk is relevant too to Hill’s general approach to both writing and playing. On both, he is situated at the very front edge of fifties-sixties post-bop, an amalgam of Monk and Powell, the two great bop piano influences. No one played –or wrote- quite like him but alas, he was neither traditional enough or avant garde enough to make a strong showing against the 60s music of Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, the Ayler brothers and others. With 34 albums and two compilations to his name as session leader, he isn’t exactly under-recorded. He just never emerged as a name on the scale of, say, Taylor. Fame and quality of output are different standards through. Quality he offered. Fame, he didn’t get –at least not on the scale he deserved.
Another point worth noting is his consistency. Hill was 22 when he recorded this album but as pianist and composer, he seems to have emerged from the womb fully formed.
It wasn't unusual in the mid-60s for Blue Note albums to include original compositions, but sometimes these compositions were pretty generic: a modal number, a "Sidewinder" clone, a blues number, etc. But not here -- each of Hill's tunes is distinct from those generic categories, and from the other tunes on the album. Hill's tunes include weird twists and turns, starts and stops, alternating sections with clashing ideas or moods, unpredictable rhythms, and of course a touch of Monk. "Subterfuge" is a percussive, claustrophobic piano trio performance. "McNeil Island" is another trio performance, but this time Roy Haynes sits out. Joe Henderson plays very lyrically on this one. "Black Fire" is a waltz, alternating an upbeat theme with a darker one. It's interesting to see how the soloists adjust to the frequently adjusting moods in their solos. "Pumpkin" (introduced by a striking Richard Davis bassline) and the sorta-Latin "Cantarnos" both feature intense, passionate melodies.
Hill got a major assist from his quartet: Henderson (tenor sax), Davis (bass) and Haynes (drums). Hill had great chemistry with all three guys, and each would appear on at least one Hill recording after this one. Henderson's playing is more avant-garde than on contemporary albums such as Lee Morgan's Sidewinder and Grant Green's Idle Moment. Haynes could perform brilliantly in any context, while Davis's virtuosic bass playing is perfect for Hill's music. (I guess that's why he played on Hill's first seven albums for BN!) Together, Haynes and Davis push and pull against the soloists, giving Hill's music the flexibility it needs.
Though Point of Departure might be a better album, Black Fire is probably a more accessible introduction to Hill's music. Be sure to check out his other Blue Note albums, including Judgment, Andrew!!! and Passing Ships.
(Note: this review is based on an older reissue of the album. I have not heard the recent RVG remaster.)
"Black Fire", Andrew Hill's powerful debut record for Blue Note, is an impressive and original record which builds from hard bop and even flirts with free music in some of its songs. Perhaps this "Black Fire" is more suitable to begin with Hill's music rather than his allegedly best albums, "Point of Departure" and "Judgement". Here he is backed by a kind of dream team, with Joe Henderson on tenor sax, playing it sensationally, in his usual way, the virtuous bassist Richard Davis, and the highly acclaimed drummer Roy Haynes, all of them leaders in their own bands. None of them are content within the limits of conventional hard bop and that is what makes "Black Fire" an outstanding classical record of modern Jazz. All of the themes, seven originals plus two alternate takes, are very good, so I highly recommend it. It is an essential and a must-have record. You can't go wrong buying it.