The darkest of jazz composers and band leaders, Andrew Hill, in creating his 1966 album Compulsion, pushed his music to its most turbulent sphere. Augmenting Joe Chambers’s drumming with percussionists Nadi Qamar and Renaud Simmons, and having bassists Richard Davis and Cecil McBee play in tandem on the long “Premonition,” creates a murky undercurrent that’s maintained throughout the album. If this makes Compulsion one of the pianist’s most difficult albums, it’s also helped to make it one of his most absorbing.
Trumpeter Freddie Hubbard was a Blue Note mainstay during the 1960s, so it’s no wonder Hill chose him as a collaborator here. But his selection of tenor saxophonist/bass clarinetist John Gilmore is even more inspired. Gilmore, who worked exclusively with the Sun Ra Arkestra, almost never recorded independently, and his completely sui generis soloing on Compulsion upgrades the session to something nearly essential.
The album begins with the title track, with Chambers and the percussionists setting up a furious 8/8 rhythm under which Hill slams violent left-handed fifths, eventually adding a skewed, deliberately imprecise montuna — section where both hands play the same phrase, just an octave apart. The horns play a brief theme, Hill returns to his violent chording, the drums settle into a powerful groove, and Hubbard begins soloing, contrasting light and dark. Hill expands the dynamics to titanic proportion, substituting huge blocks of sound for nameable chords. The trumpet and bass clarinet restate a dolorous theme before Gillman moves to tenor for his solo. It’s impossible to listen to this singular musician and not conclude that, had he made himself available, he would have been a major figure of his era. His understanding of advanced theoretical concepts was profound and he played with great passion. Here, he uses short declamatory phrases that grow increasingly incantatory, shadowed insightfully by the pianist.
“Legacy” is a kind of abstract Afro-Cuban composition, with Hill again utilizing a faux montuna, alternating that with unison lines played at the extreme opposite ends of the pianos and occasional major second diads. He continues over a hypnotic drum pattern, maintaining the stark contrast between treble and bass figures, but adding out-of-sync boppish lines — think Bud Powell transplanted to Haiti. The horns lay out.
The album’s ballad is “Premonition,” although it’s an uncommon ballad. Shaped largely by Richard Davis’s bowed microtonal bass lines, the soloists play over an unsettlingly still percussion section. Hill’s solo is magnificent; he authoritatively picks and chooses what he needs from the other players, frequently moving into separate territory. Gilmore’s bass clarinet is cautious, each note chosen with great deliberation. Davis plays a long, abstract solo, accompanied by thumb piano. It’s demanding material, only tangentially related to the conventional jazz of its time. The 6/8 “Limbo” is closer in conception and execution to Hill’s typical work at the time: There’s a unison theme played by the horns, and the standard progression of solos, with Hubbard starting off. And although we have now moved firmly back to jazz territory, the augmented rhythm section, combined with Hill’s provocatively phrased chords, keeps this from being a standard jazz session (not that any Blue Note dates from the time lapsed into being pro forma). Cecil McBee gets his only solo spot, and makes the most of it, alternating between fleet single lines and resonant octaves and ninths. John Gilmore has the final word, and is formidable in his concatenation of terse phrases, linking to form a coherent statement with one surprise blues line tellingly inserted.
All of Andrew Hill’s Blue Note recordings are required listening for anyone with a serious interest in post-war jazz. Compulsion holds a unique place in his canon. It represents Hill’s most radical departure from the mainstream 1960s jazz, and hints at the way his music would go in the years to come.