A Few Minutes With… Theo Hill

February 6th, 2015, 12:00 pm by Greg

Theo Hill - Live at Smalls

Interview and story by J Hunter

About half a block from 7th Avenue South in the West Village, Smalls is the NYC basement club of a jazz fan’s dreams: Pump in some cigarette smoke, and Django Reinhardt would feel right at home. Smalls lives up to its name, too; if impresario Spike Wilner ever decided to replace the benches audience members sit on, he’d probably only be able to fit four tables in the space before he reached the stairs. But size isn’t everything (or so I’ve been assured). Through his in-house recording label, smallsLIVE, Wilner has released a steady, consistently strong, quality-centric series of live recordings from artists like Cyrille Aimee (who is headed into The Egg in Albany on Friday, February 13), Bruce Barth (pianist with Michael Benedict & Bopitude), Ralph Lalama and Joe Magnarelli.

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There are plenty of other hard-core players in the smallsLIVE catalog, which just added a name that should snap some heads around here in Greater Nippertown: Albany native and Albany High School alumnus Theo Hill.

Live at Smalls (the default title for releases on Wilner’s label) is the second smallsLIVE disc Hill is featured on – the other being an intense Smalls Legacy Band tribute to trombone legend Frank Lacy. Two other players on that date (trumpeter Josh Evans and drummer Kush Abadey) also appear with Hill on trombonist David Gibson’s wild Posi-tone release Boom! But Smalls is Hill’s first date as a leader, recorded at the club where he made his first foray into the NYC jazz scene… at age 16! So while this disc – the first major-label release by a Capital Region jazzer since Hill’s fellow AHS alum Stefon Harris signed with Blue Note – is big for our area’s scene, it’s positively huge for Hill, and the pianist responds with a set of originals and covers that’s just as big.

Maybe it was the brooding opening of “Ellipse” that made The New York Times claim – in an article on club-related jazz imprints – that Hill has “a chamberlike approach to composition.” Bassist Joe Sanders bows high over Hill’s dark piano figure as Rodney Green’s brushes make his cymbals hiss. But bit-by-bit, the piece expands to let the trio (and Hill in particular) bring light and heat into the track. The sound on Smalls expands even more as reedman Dayna Stephens joins the group on his own composition “Teeth,” wielding an axe that’s more associated with sax icon Michael Brecker’s older recordings: an Electronic Wind Instrument, which makes it seem like Hill is doubling on synthesizer – except that the power coming from the piano says Hill’s focusing all his energies on that instrument.

Although Hill can (and does) crush it when the occasion calls, it’s his sense of nuance that knocks me flat, both on Hill’s own composition “Naima’s Lullabye” and on Wayne Shorter’s “Iris” – another track where Stephens’ EWI brings the dual-keyboard sound. Stephens does break out his tenor sax for a dive-bombing take on McCoy Tyner’s “Four By Five,” and pairs up with titanic altoist Myron Walden for Hill’s soaring long-form piece “Mantra.” Even with a front line that massive, though, the real headline on Smalls is the tremendous chemistry Hill shares with Sanders and Green throughout the date. I like my piano trios to echo Muhammad Ali in his prime (“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee!”), and they sure make that grade.

Between his recent appearance at NYC Winter JazzFest and the twin releases of Live at Smalls and Boom, Hill has been just a little took up. Happily, he found a few minutes to talk to me about the discs, and about his musical upbringing in the Capital Region – an upbringing that mirrors another pianist I hold near and dear:

Q: You have something in common with John Medeski: You started out studying classical piano, moved toward jazz, and then studied with Lee Shaw. Do you remember what prompted the change in musical interests?

A: I began studying classical music with Mary Moran at the age of five; however, jazz was always being played in my house. My father was a jazz fan and record collector, and would quiz me on whatever record might be playing (mostly ’50s Blue Note: Coltrane, Miles, Red Garland, Sonny Clark, Horace Silver), so my gravitation toward jazz was quite natural. I was also blessed to have Lee Shaw as a teacher.

Q: What can you tell us about your time working with Lee?

A: I will always consider her to be my musical mother in jazz music. Studying with Lee was amazing. She was demanding, patient, organized, and was always excited to sit and talk about the music. She insisted that I record every lesson on cassette tape. I still have boxes of tapes to go through. I am still learning lessons that I began work on with Lee.

Q: You’re a graduate of Albany High School, the same school that gave the world Stefon Harris. You know how big a presence Stefon is in the jazz world. How does it feel to follow in his footsteps?

A: Stefon Harris has been a great inspiration to me since I was a teenager. I remember getting the opportunity to perform with him in a small ensemble and sitting in at one of his performances when I was at AHS. Later, while I was at SUNY Purchase, I was a huge fan of Stefon and his collaborations with Greg Osby. Stefon has an amazing vision as a bandleader and composer, and it’s sometimes daunting to follow in his footsteps. But I’m proud to have Stefon as a role model, and to know a successful cat from my hometown. 

Q: “Live at Smalls” was recorded at the first NYC club you played. Was that a big thing for you, or is it just part of the rush of having your first date as a leader appear on one of jazz’ rising labels?

A: Smalls has become like a second home to me; it’s the epicenter of the NYC jazz community. For my 16th birthday, I asked my parents to take me to Smalls Jazz Club. I’m not sure how I knew about Smalls, but that’s what I wanted to do. So we went at about 1 am and stayed all night. I think I might have sat in around 5am, and that was my first time playing in NYC.

Spike Wilner has been doing great things for the jazz musicians and community, including live streaming, the record label smallsLIVE, his revenue share project, and his new jazz piano club Mezzrow. 

Q: In addition to “Live at Smalls,” you also do some heavy lifting on David Gibson’s new Posi-tone release “Boom!” What can you say about that date, and about working with Gibson?

A: I’ve been working with David Gibson for the past few years. Boom! was fun because I got the opportunity to record with my close musical partners Josh Evans, Alexander Claffy and Kush Abadey. We have been playing in many different combinations of bands for the past few years. Josh, Kush and I recorded on Frank Lacy Live at Smalls (smallsLIVE), and play downtown almost every week. David is a great writer, arranger and bandleader, and really knows how to put the right people together. It was also a pleasure to work with Posi-tone Records.

Q: One of the many things that popped out for me about “Smalls” was Dayna Stephens playing EWI on some of the tracks. Was that something he brought to the table, or were you trying to expand the keyboard sound on the disc?

A: Dayna Stephens is one of my favorite musicians. He plays with such a sense of beauty, musicality and lyricism. I wanted to bring a different sound to the music and try something not so traditional. I also am a fan of keyboards and synthesizers, so I asked Dayna to play EWI. 

Q: What planet does Myron Walden come from? The only explanation I can come up with for his singular form of reed madness is that’s how they play jazz on his home world.

A: Myron Walden is a bad cat – period! I’ve always been a fan of his, especially his work with Brian Blade Fellowship. He was one of the many cats I looked up to when I was young on the scene. I am so honored to have him on my record. 

Q: The New York Times article said you have “a chamberlike approach to composition.” For my money, that’s pompous even for the Times. How would you describe your approach to composition? Also, how much input did the players on the date have on the way the music turned out?

A: It’s nice to see my name in the Times. It’s nice to get some recognition of your work. I like to write very simple and often repetitive themes that give the members of the band freedom to interpret the music and focus on group interplay. The process and inspiration behind each composition is different. However, in general, I don’t like to box in or limit anyone’s artistry. I like musicians to be themselves.

That’s why I asked Dayna, Joe Sanders and Rodney Green to play on the record. I trust the musical choices that they make, and I try to give them the freedom to play how they want. They have an amazing hook-up and are constantly in demand. They are the reason the record came out the way it did.