The iFi Audio Zen Phono Breathes New Life into Andrew Hill's Missing Masterpiece

July 2021

When the stars align, the intersection between art and commerce can benefit both artist and audience, but the meeting is never anything but unpredictable. Sometimes, the two forces collide with terrible results.

The story of pianist and composer Andrew Hill and his 1969 recording, Passing Ships, falls into the latter category. It serves as a stark illustration of how a single business transaction can change the path of one artist’s life and rob us of the experience of what might have been. Fortunately, Passing Ships is also the inspiring, but rare, story of an artistic rebirth and a great tale of the role that music archivists and lovers of sonic beauty play in shaping what we hear.

Hill, a Chicago native, was 38 when he brought eight other musicians—trumpeters Woody Shaw and Dizzy Reece, multi-instrumentalists Joe Farrell and Howard Johnson, trombonist Julian Priester, French-horn player Bob Northern, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Lenny White—into Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. A nonet was a novel setting for Hill, who usually favored a more standard quintet or sextet, and the additional players signaled that Hill had written music that called for more instrumental voices, colors, and textures than he normally employed.

Speaking to me in 2007, just after Hill’s death that year at the age of 75, Johnson, who played both bass clarinet and tuba on Passing Ships, told me the composer also wanted those voices to sound a specific way.

“Usually on a record date I’m asked to do what a tuba normally does,” said Johnson, who died earlier this year, “but for Passing Ships Andrew had written stuff that he thought a tuba should be able to do. He also had an ear for unique voices. Joe Farrell was a much better bass clarinetist than me, but Andrew wanted me to play certain things [on that instrument] because there was a specific sound he wanted.”

Sadly, that sound would not be heard for 34 years. The master tapes were shelved by Blue Note Records, which had bankrolled the sessions.

James Hale

In 1968, ownership of Blue Note had passed from Liberty Records, headed by veteran record producer Alvin Bennett, to the financial services holding company Transamerica Corporation. Transamerica wanted profits, and no one in charge at Blue Note saw much potential in a complexly arranged set of acoustic music by a middle-aged pianist. Miles Davis had just released his seminal album, Bitches Brew, which marked a shift to amplified music spiked with rhythms that echoed the urgency of popular contemporary artists like Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix.

For Hill, Blue Note’s decision to not release Passing Ships was a stinging rebuke of the artistic course he had taken up to that point.

Self-taught and inspired in equal parts by bebop pianists like Thelonious Monk and the German composer Paul Hindemith, Hill didn’t arrive in New York City until he was 30 years old, and didn’t really make his mark until 1963. Late that year and into 1964, over the course of five recording sessions for Blue Note, Hill created a handful of albums with some of the most provocative improvisers of the time: saxophonists Joe Henderson and Eric Dolphy, bassist Richard Davis, and drummers Elvin Jones and Tony Williams. Those albums—Black Fire, Smoke Stack, Judgment!, Andrew!!!, and Point of Departure—introduced a new, episodic nature to the language of jazz and forced critics to redefine the pigeonholes they had created for bebop and the avant-garde. Hill’s music juxtaposed distinctive voices and created dense harmonic structures, while blending in both joy and humor.

Following those five epochal recordings, Hill explored deep grooves (1968’s Grass Roots) and modal composition (Dance with Death, recorded in ’68 but not released until 1980) but never quite reached the audience that embraced contemporaries like Herbie Hancock or McCoy Tyner. This lack of recognition is something that those he has influenced have struggled to understand.

In 2007, Jason Moran—arguably the most dominant jazz pianist of this century so far—told me: “Andrew is definitely a major figure for piano. . . . He changed the perception of melody. In that regard, he was more complicated than Monk. He took music to a space where other composers in the ’60s couldn’t.”

Even so, in 1969, Hill was the ideal target for a financial services giant looking to cut its losses.

Having been dropped by Transamerica’s Blue Note, Hill decided to chart a new career course. He pursued a doctorate at Colgate University—where he served as composer-in-residence from 1970 to 1972—and then moved to California, where he taught in both the public school system and the state’s penal institutions. Later, he moved to Oregon to take a faculty position at Portland State University. Although he would occasionally resurface with recordings on independent labels like SteepleChase or Soul Note, he was largely out of the contemporary jazz scene until 1998, when he began a remarkable run of late-career masterpiece recordings and quirky solo concerts. He remained active until his death from lung cancer in 2007.

It was during this resurgence, in 2003, that Passing Ships was finally refloated, thanks to the persistence of Michael Cuscuna. The veteran producer and archivist had produced Spiral, a Hill live recording released on the Freedom label in 1975. Cuscuna would go on to cofound Mosaic Records, but he had already cast his sights on the goal of breathing new life into old and neglected recordings. Hill told Cuscuna about a number of sessions he’d recorded for Blue Note that hadn’t been released, but it was the nonet that most intrigued the producer.

In 1975, when the Blue Note vault was finally opened to Cuscuna, those missing Hill tapes were among the first he sought out. The tape he discovered was a severe disappointment, as he recollected in his liner notes to the 2003 CD release of Passing Ships (Blue Note Records 90417). Those liner notes are reproduced on the new audiophile LP version produced by hi-fi guru Joe Harley and mastered by Kevin Gray on 180g vinyl for Blue Note’s Tone Poet series.

Passing Ships

In Cuscuna’s words, the session sounded like “a train wreck.” Some of the nine instruments were nothing but a vague shadow. Today, Harley speculates that what Cuscuna had found was a two-track stereo tape Van Gelder had made during the sessions for his own reference.

While Cuscuna had discarded the idea of doing anything with such a recording, Hill never let go of the hope that a project that had meant so much to him would someday be released. In 2001—by which time the pianist was back in New York City, performing and recording, and Cuscuna had established himself as jazz’s leading reissue producer—Hill urged him to search for the original master tapes.

What Cuscuna eventually found lived up to Hill’s memory, and Cuscuna worked with Malcolm Addey to bring the music to life in a 24-bit mix for the CD release.

Passing Ships

As with the rest of his music in the ’60s, the seven pieces Hill composed for Passing Ships present a wide range of settings, including steaming hard bop, funk, and Latin-tinged rhythms, but nothing spools out in an expected way. The songs are rife with earworm-worthy melodies, mainly voiced in the horn ensembles—either as thematic heads or as flourishes behind Hill’s piano solos.

“Sideways” launches with a bustling rhythm and a powerful tenor sax solo by Farrell. The delicate balance of bright- and dark-voiced horns behind the piano solo and the tonal blends in the ensemble heads set the pattern for what’s to follow.

The title composition is immediately remarkable for Farrell’s English-horn playing and the way that White, just 19 and playing on only his second recording session, breaks up the beat behind the soloists. The slippery foundation is enhanced by the way Carter continuously augments the relatively simple three-note ostinato that anchors the composition. Shaw, also a relative newcomer at the age of 24, plays a particularly meditative solo, highlighting the difference between himself and Reece, who sounds much brassier and is more firmly rooted in the bop tradition.

White, who would go on to star with Chick Corea’s Return To Forever in the ’70s, sparks the 12-bar “Plantation Bag” with an infectious boogaloo beat, while the horn parts allude to birdsong as they chatter and squawk in the background.

Set in 8/8 time and featuring some rollicking call-and-response between the horns, “Noon Tide” is the type of composition that helped perpetuate the misconception that Hill hailed from Haiti. Farrell plays an especially vibrant tenor solo in a biting tone, and Reece responds with an assertive interlude. “Noon Tide” stands apart as the only piece that features solos by both trumpeters, with Shaw standing in high contrast to Reece with a muted solo over some very sophisticated harmonic interplay.

Shaw is a standout again on the elegiac “The Brown Queen,” another great showcase for Farrell’s bristling tenor sax.

The only piece that sounds somewhat less than fully realized as an ensemble arrangement, “Cascade” nonetheless illustrates both how Hill was influenced by Monk’s iconoclastic phrasing and the way he grew beyond that foundation to add his own melodic signature.

Finally, “Yesterday’s Tomorrow” gives Hill the spotlight, as he solos throughout, with Carter delivering exceptional support.

Acclaim for the Passing Ships CD in 2004 was universal, and Hill tapped Johnson and others for a reunion concert that capped the pianist’s return to the spotlight and caused critics and musicologists to re-evaluate his truncated career.

Despite the praise for Passing Ships 17 years ago, it had managed to evade reproduction in LP format until now, making it, perhaps, the ideal cornerstone of Harley’s Tone Poet reissue series.

James Hale

The genesis of the Tone Poet series was a conversation Harley had with Blue Note head Don Was at a Charles Lloyd recording session in Los Angeles a few years ago. Impressed by the work Harley had done on Blue Note recordings that had been reissued on the Music Matters Jazz label, Was sounded him out on launching a true audiophile project under Blue Note’s auspices. For Harley, that meant doing nothing but the best in terms of production and packaging, and he doubted Blue Note really wanted to dig that deep into its budget to make it happen. What Harley had in mind was working from the very best analog tapes available, having Gray remaster the mixes at Cohearant Audio, manufacturing in high-grade vinyl at Record Technology Incorporated in Camarillo, California, and packaging in vintage-style gatefolds, so-called hand-tipped record jackets, produced at Stoughton Printing Company in Los Angeles.

“I thought, you know, they’re not going to do this because they don’t know the costs are a lot more than what they’re used to,” said Harley. “The jackets are a lot more expensive. The pressings are more expensive; the mastering. And Don just kept saying, ‘Great; let’s do it. That’s what I want to do.’ So all my objections were disarmed, and he meant it.”

There’s no question that the quality shows through in every aspect of the Tone Poet version of Passing Ships. It’s a gorgeous package, and a unique one, considering the 47 minutes of music are stretched across three LP sides, leaving one side blank—something I haven’t encountered since blues guitarist Johnny Winter’s sophomore recording for Columbia Records, Second Winter, in 1969.

James Hale

In keeping with his strict all-analog policy, Harley began with an analog mix created from Van Gelder’s eight-track master. Addey had made the mix while producing the digital mix for Cuscuna’s CD release of the album. Although Harley had previously heard the CD, neither he nor Gray listened to it again before they began their work.

“I did bring the CD to the session,” he said, “but we didn’t put it on. We like to approach things with fresh ears. We put the tapes up, and Kevin and I will sit there and think . . . Okay, what does this need? Sometimes it doesn’t need anything. But I never compress. You may notice on the CD, there is a degree of compression. When you put on the LP it’s really dynamic.”

I was anxious to hear the difference, but first I had to determine how I would tweak my sound chain—comprising Fluence RT83 turntable, NAD D 3045 integrated amplifier, and Q Acoustics 3050i floorstanding speakers—to fit the project. From a purely visual aesthetic perspective, the ideal fit seemed to be iFi Audio’s Zen Phono ($149.99, all prices in USD), which the UK audio manufacturer positions as an entry-level phono stage. Many of the company’s home audio products are housed in casings that evoke a mid-century modern vibe, and the Zen Phono epitomizes this with a broadly elliptical, gray metal case and brushed-silver faceplate. It wouldn’t have looked out of place on the dash of my father’s ’65 Cadillac.

iFi Audio

Weighing just over a pound, the Zen Phono measures 6.2″W × 1.4″H × 4.6″D, and feels sturdy. A button labeled Power illuminates a pinhead-sized, white LED, while four other similar LEDs indicate the gain setting that has been selected: MM, for moving-magnet cartridges; and MC High, MC Low , and MC V-Low, for moving-coil cartridges. The gain settings are 36, 48, 60, and 72dB, respectively (all ±1dB). Yet another LED indicates if you’ve engaged the pushbutton-operated subsonic filter, which cuts out the very low frequencies that, for a variety of reasons, can emanate from a turntable.

On the back panel, in addition to the small slider switch to select the various MM or MC gain settings, there’s a set of single-ended RCA inputs, a set of single-ended RCA outputs, and a balanced 1/4″ output. There’s also a ground connector for the phono cable and a jack for an external power supply.

The Zen Phono’s listed frequency response is 10Hz–100kHz and the signal-to-noise ratio for the MM setting I used is an A-weighted >96dB.

Dropping the stylus on side 1 of the Tone Poet Passing Ships, I was immediately struck by the spaciousness of the soundstage, compared with the CD version. Suddenly, it was easier to picture myself in Van Gelder’s domed, 39′ high, wood-paneled recording space. Harley speculated that Van Gelder hadn’t yet installed isolation booths when Hill and company arrived to record on November 7, 1969. Instead, he used dividers between the nine musicians, and Harley said he was pleased with the clean separation the famed engineer had achieved.

James Hale

To take the measure of the analog versus digital approaches, I decided to focus on “Plantation Bag,” the energetic, boogaloo-driven piece that ends side 1. Like all of Hill’s writing for the nonet, there are interwoven melodic lines and complex harmonies, and the result demands a dynamic mix.

In Addey’s digital mix, the twin trumpets of Shaw and Reece sounded a bit harsh, as did Hill’s piano when he took his extended, and characteristically cockeyed, solo toward the end of the song. There was an overall brightness to the sound, which was emphasized by the fact that Carter’s bass and White’s drums were relatively low in the mix.

When I listened to the LP, the trumpets immediately sounded warmer and Farrell’s tenor sax had significantly more bite. While Johnson’s tuba, Farrell’s bass clarinet, and the other horns sounded about the same in the ensemble passages, the roomier soundstage of the LP/Zen Phono combo improved the overall balance. The most dramatic changes were in the bottom end—particularly for the double bass, which bloomed in the analog mix and vinyl mastering.

That pointed to something Harley has frequently highlighted in Van Gelder’s approach in the studio. “Above all, Blue Note wanted to avoid returns [of the LPs that had been purchased],” he told me, “so to avoid tracking problems and skipping with the modest turntables most listeners had, Rudy would sometimes roll off the low end.”

Harley went on to say that, since the compositions rely so much on Carter “steering” with his fluid bass-playing, the presence of the instrument on the LP was particularly important: “When I put on the test pressing, I was really thrilled. It’s only when you listen that you know whether you really got it or not.”

As we wrapped up our conversation, I raised the issue of Hill’s disappointment with the original fate of Passing Ships and how his failure to impress Blue Note in 1969 had led to him largely setting aside his burgeoning recording career. Harley replied, “I wish he were around just to see this release and how people are responding to it. I think he would have really enjoyed the way the thing is presented.”

Fourteen years after Andrew Hill’s death, I am left to reflect on something Moran said about his mentor: “Andrew’s view of his own career taught me a lot about mine. The only time he got a little angry with me was when I wrote in a grant application that his music had been ‘underappreciated.’ He told me, ‘I wasn’t underappreciated; I was underpromoted.’”

. . . James Hale
jamesh@soundstagenetwork.com

Note: for the full suite of measurements on the iFi Audio Zen Phono from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click this link.