Iyer & Friends Pay Homage to Andrew Hill


​Vijay Iyer (left) and Nicole Mitchell perform music by Andrew Hill at Harlem Stage’s Gatehouse on March 1.

(Photo: Marc Millman)

A program of music by the late Andrew Hill is right up Harlem Stage’s alley. “Let’s get real: This is what we do,” said Pat Cruz, the venue’s artistic director and CEO, in her introduction to the March 1 concert ”Eternal Spirit: Vijay Iyer and Friends Celebrate the Music of Andrew Hill” at the Harlem Stage’s Gatehouse. “We lift up and acknowledge the voices of underrecognized artists who have made a difference.”

Both Cruz and Iyer have firsthand knowledge of Hill’s importance and underrated reputation. Cruz and her late husband, the artist Emilio Cruz, were longtime friends of the pianist and composer, and she booked Hill for multiple concerts before his passing in 2007. Iyer was a protégé of Hill’s (one of many) as well as a friend, giving him clear motives both to pay tribute to the deceased jazz master and to dissect his compositions. Actually, “dissect” is a good word for Hill’s own methods. “Mr. Hill loved a propulsive rhythm, and he equally loved to peel it apart like an onion,” Iyer wrote in the program notes. “He had his own way with harmony, stripping it down to its irreducible components.”

Leading a stellar octet for the concert, Iyer began the performance with a brief solo — a reading of “For Emilio,” Hill’s ode to his artist friend — before the full band exploded into “Black Fire.” It was a clever arrangement, with tenor saxophonist Mark Shim carrying the main melody while flutist Nicole Mitchell and vibraphonist Yuhan Su joined in Iyer’s countermelody. Mitchell and Su contributed fine solos as well, while Shim engaged in exciting counterpoint with trumpeter Milena Casado in a build-up to a thrilling rhythmic conversation between Iyer and drummer Nasheet Waits.

From there, the program was a mix of “greatest hits” (so to speak; Hill was never a commercial artist) and lesser-known album tracks. The former included the title track to Hill’s much-loved 1998 album Dusk, highlighted by a Casado flugelhorn solo both gripping and tender; “Refuge,” the dramatic opener to his most famous album, 1964’s Point Of Departure; and “Golden Sunset,” a gorgeous ballad that again featured Mitchell and Su.

The concert’s deep cuts featured dives into Hill’s more angular and mysterious material. “Desire,” a terse and tense 1966 composition (first issued under Sam Rivers’ name), had Iyer and the horns dispatch the head within 15 seconds, then jump down a deep, spiraling rabbit-hole of groove. As Mitchell, Casado and Iyer took long and oddly shaped solos, Su accented them with weird, dissonant vibraphone chords; Hill, who loved the off-kilter, would no doubt have approved. The two-bass combination of Devon Gates and Reginald Workman led the foreboding way into “Premonition,” one of the composer’s freest and darkest compositions; its short melody opened into shifting improvised dialogues where Waits’ drums were the only constant.

The use of two basses wasn’t happenstance: It was an instrumentation with which Hill experimented a few times in his long career. Iyer spotlighted Workman and Gates’ tandem work on “Smoke Stack,” the title track to Hill’s 1963 Blue Note recording, which Iyer has previously called perhaps his all-time favorite album. Everyone left the stage but Iyer, Waits and the bassists, who took their time coalescing into Hill’s tune. Once they’d established it, Iyer took a long, careening solo that nodded to Hill-like shapes and phrases, but otherwise couldn’t be mistaken for anyone but Iyer. Behind him, Workman held the bottom and the main pulse while Gates explored the middle and high ranges with whimsical and often non-metrical phrases and fragments. Waits, meanwhile, played a heavily embellished line, but one with indefatigable swing at its core. It might have been the concert’s most fascinating moment.

Hill was too mercurial and spontaneous an artist ever to have a consistent theme song in his performances. Still, one of Iyer’s cleverest moves was to turn “Soul Special” — a near-Stax/Volt pastiche from 1968 that was probably the most populist thing Hill ever created — into a closing theme, announcing the band and the thank-yous over its southern-soul riffs. Even here, though, Shim and Casado found space to duel it out with hard-swinging polyphony. The musicians’ resourcefulness had no end.

While Hill was endlessly resourceful as a composer, he was so obsessed with keeping things fresh that he often discarded his compositions as soon as he’d recorded them. But Iyer and Friends demonstrated how durable and inspiring his writing remains — all while getting to show off their own splendid ideas. “Everybody doing OK?” Iyer asked during a quick interlude. “We’re floating in heaven,” Cruz replied from the audience. So we were. DB

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