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Return to the April 1999 A&E Preview Cover
Arts & Entertainment Preview - April 1999

Popular Music and Jazz
B Y   B O B   B L U M E N T H A L   &   C H A R L E S   M.   Y O U N G

Hill's Peaks

   The pianist and composer
   Andrew Hill

There was no better balance of jazz verities and exploratory risk in the 1960s than that found on the Blue Note albums of Andrew Hill. His rich themes, colors, and beat, and the responses they evoked from the era's best musicians, made the pianist/composer appear to be the next Thelonious Monk. Hill has turned out to be similarly enigmatic, teaching out of the limelight for decades, with occasional albums on which his skills remain reassuringly intact. He breaks a nine-year recording silence with Dusk (Palmetto), which delivers the beauty and spark of his best early work. Hill leads a band of deep if underrated talent that has been acclimating itself to his diverse moods in occasional performances since 1996. The trumpet of Ron Horton and the saxophones of Marty Ehrlich and Greg Tardy allow Hill's compelling voicings to pulsate against the brisk drive of a rhythm section that features the bassist Scott Colley and the drummer Billy Drummond. What results is complex, limber, and rarely predictable music. Soloists do not simply take turns in rote order, so each instrument gains weight and purpose when it does step forward. Hill's arrangements and programming also stress surprising conjunctions. "Ball Square" finds a march resolving into boogie-woogie, and "Sept" abandons Balkan-tinged melodies to pursue less dancelike directions. The dignity of "T.C.," with a poetic duet for two bass clarinets, is followed by the lopsided swinger "15/8," and the serpentine shapes of the opening "Dusk" present an ideal entry point for Kind of Blue fans seeking another variety of ensemble epiphany. --B.B.

Hey Diddle Diddle

Pretty much everything out of the Scandinavian progressive folk scene has been at least interesting and often brilliant for a number of years now. Breathing life into gloriously memorable ancient melodies, bands such as Garmarna, Hedningarna, and Hoven Droven have kept the spirit alive while daring to make radical forays into the instrumentation of metal and electronica and rave. Receiving only sporadic radio play (primarily on NPR and college stations), the music has generated a small but religiously dedicated U.S. following that ought to grow with further exposure. Both converts and the curious should be thrilled with Baba Yaga (NorthSide), by Annbjørg Lien, who is equally and hugely gifted as a musician, an arranger, and a composer. A master of the hardanger, a fiddle with resonant steel strings in the body, Lien can get quiet and eerie or loud and stirring, with a full range of subtle variation in between. Named for the Russian witch who lived in a hut that stood on a pair of giant chicken legs, Baba Yaga paints a path to mythological realms with no lyrics and little voice (one passage sounds like a cross between Tuvan throat singing and jazz scat); guitar, flute, bagpipes, heavy percussion, and a variety of weird noises emanate from a computer. Whether moaning like late-period Led Zeppelin or humming like a hungry North Country mosquito, Lien's hardanger is guaranteed to inspire surreal dreams worthy of Baba Yaga at any time of the day or night. --C.M.Y.

Surprising Discovery

   RBBS returns with a new album

Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise was probably the happiest surprise the music business sprang on the world in 1996. Bradley, a blind, middle-aged black man, led his Surprise (four young white rock and soul musicians) right into heavy rotation on MTV -- an institution not known for its tolerance of the formerly youthful or the physically imperfect. But quality will out, even sometimes on MTV. Bradley's voice, honed by more than two decades of street singing, was just undeniable. Proud and vulnerable, sandpapered enough for character but not so much that his melodic range was crippled, it was the voice of experience at a moment when experience appeared to be a wonderful novelty against the landscape of Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys. Now RBBS has returned with Time to Discover (RCA), a second effort that shows no evidence of a drop-off in quality. What it does show is a band that somehow picked up all the right soul influences from the late fifties to the late sixties and then did a Rip Van Winkle, waking up in the nineties with a sound so old that it's new. Even the effects are old: the guitar sticks to the wah-wah pedal with a little fuzz; the keyboardist likes the sound of the Hammond B-3 organ and the Fender electric piano. The songs, though, are plenty new, and do not suffer from any lack of sampling. Bradley is a prolific writer whose concerns range from the spiritual to the sexual to the apocalyptic. His enthusiasm for life shines through whatever the subject matter. Metal rapper Kid Rock makes a couple of appearances, declaiming the righteousness of the Detroit music tradition (which extends from Motown to the Stooges), and it isn't a brag -- just the truth. RBBS is a worthy step backward and forward in that tradition. --C.M.Y.

Bob Blumenthal is a jazz critic for The Boston Globe.

Charles M. Young reviews music for Playboy and other publications and for

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Photo Credits -- Andrew Hill: Paul Carni. Baba Yaga: Courtesy of Northside. RBBS: Norman Jean Ray.
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.

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