Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Time Ticking Away

The first time I heard Branford Marsalis was on The Dark Keys. I picked it up expecting to hear a bebop jam and instead I got hit with thick, heavy music. To my credit, I knew it was over my head; but I couldn't handle it, and I didn't like it. I vowed to come back to it after a couple years; but in the meantime, I stuck the CD on a shelf.

Nowadays that experience is rare. There's plenty of music that's beyond my capacity to perform, but there's not much that's over my head. I've written more than 250 reviews and it's incredibly rare that I feel compelled to sit and actually transcribe the tunes in order to articulate my opinion, but that's exactly what I'm going through with the new album by Andrew Hill.

I'm not confused as to whether it's good. I knew that from my first listen. But there's plenty of good music by giants and legends that doesn't make me feel like an amateur. This does. It's a challenge, and I love that.

Andrew Hill famously said that he had been inspired a comment made to him offstage by Charlie Parker, that bebop was about rhythm. The chords, the melody, every cadence was about conveying rhythm; and if you listen to Bird's music with that in mind, it's easy to believe he said it. So you bring that knowledge to Andrew Hill's music, and you can hear those same roots.

He's also playing sleight of hand with time itself. The album is titled Time Lines, and I assume that's a play on words because if there's a tagline for this music, it's "Music Without Barlines." I spent an eternity at Berklee learning mixed meters and polyrhythms and I'm telling you, there are no barlines in Hill's music.

I had a composition teacher who insisted that we write only in bars of one and two because he said every meter could be broken down into units of either "strong" or "strong, weak." Of course, he would test us by throwing out obscenely intricate meters to work with — but he was right. Ultimately, what you're hearing in a given moment is simple: It's either a downbeat or it's not.

The problem with trying to analyze Hill's music is that you can plot where his phrases fall, but that doesn't necessarily indicate anything about how the music is written. You could be hearing bars of 3 followed by a bar of 2, or you could be hearing one bar of 11. I'm sure there are barlines on the page, but there are absolutely none on the record; and that's partly a tribute to the musicians, but it's largely due to how he weaves rhythm into every component of each tune. I've been told that Oriental rugs are judged on the number of knots per square inch of fabric, where a greater number indicates a finer, better weave; and on that scale, Hill's music would rate among the finest rugs of the world.

Every good CD will yield new discoveries on repeated listening, but that's not the same as saying that you can't grasp it on the first listen. This album absolutely requires a second pass; if you've only heard it once, you haven't heard it. This disc has compelled me to keep listening. It hasn't left my player since I opened it, and I've got a folder full of notes and transcriptions to show for it. Don't consider this a review, because I'm not done; but definitely, consider this a recommendation. It's fantastic.


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