LIVE: Theo Hill Quartet @ A Place For Jazz, 10/2/15
It’s not like Theo Hill has never been back home. My first exposure to this expansive young pianist was when Hill was a surprise guest at the Massry Center drop party for Joe Barna’s Sketches of Influence disc Blowin’ It Out in 2011. By and large, though, the Albany High School alum has plied his trade in NYC, and the work is really starting to pay off: He just released his first disc as a leader Live at Smalls (smallsLIVE), and he was a major part of trombonist David Gibson’s killer Posi-tone release Boom! That’s why I was so pleased to see Hill make his debut as an artist at A Place For Jazz, where he and his parents spent many a Friday night during Hill’s formative years.
Hill would speak reverently about those times, and speak even more reverently about APFJ founder/icon Butch Conn, who visited the Hill’s house frequently. But first came the music, and a lot of it! The Unitarian Universalist Society of Schenectady Whisperdome’s famed acoustics echoed with Hill’s pensive in-the-clear opening to David Berkman’s “Blue Poles.” Yasushi Nakamura came in next, bowing beautiful bass underneath Hill’s increasingly pulsing figures, and then drummer Rodney Green’s tight martial rhythm gave the piece a structure and a spine. As the intensity reached escape velocity, Hill soloed over Green’s counters, his right hand an absolute marvel to watch as it danced up and down the keyboard as the piece morphed from a swirling waltz to a hard charger. Reed wizard Myron Walden, who had yet to play a note, stood smiling and nodding, making a small gesture towards Theo that clearly said, “Dig him, man!”
While Hill is clearly his own player, you can hear that he’s learned every lesson he can from some of the big names of the game. For one thing, he doesn’t need to pound the keyboard to get your attention. His feather-light touch recalls Herbie Hancock, who Hill gave a nod to with a marvelous reading of Hancock’s “Finger Painting.” You’re drawn right into whatever Hill’s doing, be it a thoughtful trio take on Johnny Green’s “Body and Soul,” a romping rendition of Walden’s original “Like A Flower Seeking The Sun” or Kenny Kirkland’s darkly percussive “Blasphemy.” Respect flowed from Hill when he talked about the gone-too-soon Kirkland, whose accent work you can see in bright flashes throughout Hill’s playing. His soaring take on Brad Mehldau’s “Unrequited” was absolutely magical, and during Mulgrew Miller’s “Grew’s Tune,” Hill did a triple run down the keyboard with three fast right-left-right passes that both shocked and delighted.
When Walden did play, it was like watching a bull charge the crowd on the streets of Pamplona. His solos stay within the bounds of each piece, but Walden’s lines can get so crazed, so electric, it simply makes your eyes cross. He sailed on Hancock’s mid-tempo blues “Promise of the Sun,” and his approach to Wayne Shorter’s epic ballad “Iris” showed a wistful side that never took away from his natural intensity. Even when he stuck to the melody on “Grew’s Tune” or worked a single figure during Hill’s roaring solo on “Like a Flower,” it was a complete knockout.
Green seemed to be keeping things relatively simple, but that was deceptive. Everything he did added skin or spine to everything Hill did, from his eloquent brushwork on “Body and Soul” to his dead-solid-perfect counters on “Unrequited.” The X factor for the night was Nakamura, who makes up for a soft tone with a sense of lyric and aggression that is utterly legit. His solos on “Finger Painting” and “Iris” showed he was there to do more than just keep the foundation tight, and his overall performance will make me look for his name on future recordings, because that name will definitely be seen and heard again.
One bummer that fell into the mix was the absence of Lee Shaw, who Hill referred to as one of his “musical mothers.” Shaw had planned to attend her former student’s return to Greater Nippertown, but health issues forced her to cancel at the last minute. Even so, Hill’s first piano teacher (and other musical mother) Mary Moran was in attendance, which had Hill tickled pink. And while Barna, Michael-Louis Smith and Diallo House were also not in attendance, Hill happily name-checked them for giving him his earliest chances to play live.
Hill is a long way from those teenage days when his father would drop him and his keyboard off at the gig. He’s a fully formed artist with a sense of direction and possession that you usually see in players much older than he is. While I was pleased at the crowd’s enthusiastic reaction to Hill’s 21st-century voicings, I was disappointed there weren’t more kids in the crowd like the ones I saw at Proctors’ School of Performing Arts. I know not all of those kids plan to make this music their career, but those who do need to see Hill do his righteous thing and know that – with a strong vision and an unrelenting work ethic – this could happen to them.
UPCOMING: A Place for Jazz’s fall concert series continues at 7:30pm on Friday (October 16) with Havana-born pianist-composer Manuel Valera and his five-piece band the New Cuban Express. Tickets are $15; $7 students; FREE children under age 12.