On this Saturday night, devoted fans filled New York’s small, elegant Birdland to catch the last evening of a three-night stand. The tiny stage was packed with musicians, with the diminutive Hill in one corner of the stage. The music was virtually unclassifiable style-wise: the first tune seemed to have everyone wailing in a "free" manner, yet the section playing was tightly arranged the melodic lines seemed to be in counterpoint to each other, following a driven, internal logic. It was like having a bucket of ice water suddenly thrown in your face: unnerving yet oddly exhilarating. Hill is something of an "offspring" of the Thelonious Monk less-is-more manner of playing and composing, and that was evident in the compositions and arrangements. Whereas most big bands grandly state the theme in unison then go into the solos, Hill’s organization would put out his angular melodies or enticing fragments of melodies utilizing only a few players, with full-bore, wailing ensemble passages the exception rather than the rule, as if Hill were "treating" this large group as a small, intimate one. At times the overall sound recalled Sam Rivers’ writing for large ensembles, also (here ‘n’ there) Gil Evans and George Russell. Not exactly "easy" music, but it never came off as "difficult" or outré for its own sake Hill wants you to have a good time, but he makes you earn it. Some of the arrangements came off as rather tentative or even unfinished at times, yet the music was redeemed by the impressive, inspired and concise soloing, the high points being the nimble and expressive bass playing of Scott Colley, the vibrant, accelerating/decelerating drumming of Nasheet Watts and the piquant reeds of John Savage and Marty Ehrlich (GREAT bass clarinet solo he learned from Dolphy but sounds nothing like him).
The only lump in the oatmeal was Hill’s piano playing, or rather, the lack of it. He had a few brief solo spots, was his darkly cheerful, knotty self, but otherwise he hugged the background, at times not playing at all. In the final analysis, the A. Hill Sextet +11 performance felt like a work-in-progress like seeing a great structure going up, it was alternately fascinating, frustrating, dynamic, inspiring and thrilling. The crowd was rapt throughout and responded enthusiastically - all in all, a good night for jazz in NYC.