LIVE: Theo Hill @ The Falcon, 7/30/17
One of the big keys to a happy life is having a sense of flexibility. For example, I’d set up a fine old three-day birthday weekend bash for myself in New York City: Nice hotel, jazz clubs, restaurants, sporting events and other fun-intensive activities. Then I found out pianist Theo Hill was bringing a trio to The Falcon in Marlboro on my actual birthday, and I was down at the front desk with my bags saying, “Hi! I’m checking out early!”
It wasn’t just that the Albany High School alum is a terrific performer (he is), or that his recent Positone release Promethean – Hill’s debut as a leader for the label – is an unadulterated monster (it is). Bottom line, Falcon impresario Tony Falco has developed a tremendous performance space for hardcore players to show off their talents to Hudson Valley residents who might not have the opportunity to hit the NYC venues where those players ply their trade. Having played The Falcon before as part of other units, Hill lauded Falco’s efforts before closing out a 90-minute set that confirmed Hill’s creative growth curve is still going up like a SpaceX rocket, with no sign of the trajectory changing any time soon.
Among other things, Promethean is Hill’s tribute to some of the great jazzers that have inspired his musical journey, and he got the night rolling with a fiery take on Mulgrew Miller’s “For Those Who Do.” Drummer Darrell Green set the groove firmly in motion before Hill and bassist Daryl Johns jumped on the melody like it was trying to escape. Miller’s piano style had just the right mix of smooth and snarling, and Hill’s own attack was right on that point, laying down shining technique with just enough bite to keep your attention firmly fixed.
Johns kept the foundation elegant while Green stayed big and boppish, only dialing back when Hill started sending solo lines cascading across the room, the notes flying as fast as Hill was vibrating on his piano bench. Hill and Green flew in tight formation as the pianist went deeper and wider; the piece burned like a house on fire, but the duo made sure it was a controlled blaze.
Even though Hill is in his early 30s, it’s still hard for me not to think of him as a kid – and then I listen to him play, and that picture fades away in short order. Hill’s creative attack was always beyond his years because he took to heart the insights he gathered from recordings by Miller, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams and Kenny Kirkland, and from the knowledge passed on by Greater Nippertown’s late piano icon Lee Shaw.
As Hill has matured, so has his attack, making it more about his own ideas than any concepts he gleaned from the aforementioned legends. It’s percussive piano at its finest, and yet the melody never suffers. The energy and positivity that coursed through Tony Williams’ “Black Comedy” and Hill’s original “The Phoenix” lifted all the boats in the harbor, assisted by a muscular sense of lyric that grabs you by the scruff of the neck and yells, “LISTEN TO ME!”
If we’re going to talk about “kids,” let’s talk about Daryl Johns, a second-generation jazzer who’s already near the top of the “must call” list for NYC bass players. Johns has only been able to legally drink for a short time, and yet watching him use one finger to slap the foundation of “Citadel” (another Williams track) back and forth, you’d think he’d been gigging since he escaped from the crib. Johns’ lyrical sense got a big spotlight during Hill’s righteous take on Kirkland’s “Revelations.” and Green’s own stylings got the same treatment during his rideout solo on “The Phoenix,” a piece Hill wrote in tribute to Jeff “Tain” Watts. This rhythm section was more than up to the elevated task list a piano-trio gig requires, and even though this particular unit hadn’t played much before this show, the chemistry between them was instantaneous and unbreakable.
At the top of the show, Hill cracked, “I thought, ‘If I could get five people here, it’s a success.’ I think we’ve doubled that.” Given the searing performance he laid down at the Falcon, and given that there’s more recorded beauty on the way (Hill goes back in the studio in September), I’m predicting that tickets to a Theo Hill show will not be so easy to get in the future. That’s why seeing him and his partners in a space like The Falcon was the best birthday present I got this year.
GO HERE to see more of Rudy Lu’s photographs of this concert…