But shock and furor aside, Hill’s new album - the first volume of his third stint with the legendary Blue Note label - is still fresh and keen. And compared to Hill’s classic Blue Note albums of the ’60s (Point of Departure, Black Fire, Judgment!), these eight new compositions are stately and economic, sometimes even sparse, while his piano playing has become as precisely nuanced as a painting by Chagall.
That’s not to say Hill’s not on fire. Not at all. The stuff on Time Lines may be some of the most thrilling new music since Miles Davis’ second great quintet - invoked in "Ry Round 1" and "Ry Round 2" by the Shorter-esque horn line and drummer Eric McPherson’s Tony Williams-y stagger-stepping - or since such "experimental" groups of Hill’s hometown as the Art Ensemble of Chicago or the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music - as witnessed by the deceptive simplicity and sense of humor of the title track.
There also are plenty of moments of heart-wrenching beauty and multi-faceted emotion. "Kin’ler" moves with what I can only describe as an awkward grace, the kind of dignity that adversity deepens, while "Malachi" - which I imagine is a tribute to the late bassist and fellow Chicago innovator Malachi Favors - bows respect while floating into the light.
Above all, Time Lines keeps the listener guessing. The head on "Smooth," for example, features trumpeter Charles Tolliver and reed man Greg Tardy playing a line as gentle and plaintive as a lost lamb, but bassist John Hebert’s wicked tempo suggests something considerably mightier to come.
The man Blue Note Founder Alfred Lion once called his next Thelonious Monk has continued to change and mature over the decades, which perhaps is the reason Hill’s ever-fascinating, leading-edge compositions go down so smoothly and pleasurably.