James Hill

2013 Grant Recipient

Oscar Peterson Grant for Jazz Performance
James HillJames Hill

James Hill, a 22-year-old pianist from Toronto, will enter his fourth year in the Bachelor of Music Jazz Studies degree program at Humber College this autumn. The recipient of numerous music awards, he won the Gordon Wragg Award, a legacy distinction honouring Humber’s founding President. He has performed in Ontario, notably opening for Oliver Jones at the 2012 Oakville Jazz Festival.

In submitting the nomination for The Hnatyshyn Foundation jazz grant, Denny Christianson, Director of Music, Humber College wrote, “James E. Hill is a pianist, and musician, of considerable talent, who has clearly developed his own artistic voice at a relatively young age. In fact, I would posit that in terms of musical maturity, he is way beyond his calendar years. He is already demonstrating a sophisticated motific approach to his solos, so much so that it requires an intimate knowledge of the linguistic nuances of jazz in order to fully understand what he is doing. James has the potential to become a Canadian jazz icon, for he already has a highly individual voice, and all the necessary foundational knowledge and technique he needs. I eagerly anticipate what his further development will bring.”

In adjudicating Mr. Hill’s performance submissions, which included two of his own compositions, the jury for jazz performance commented, “To have made this kind of technical progress in such a short time is nothing short of remarkable. Though the artist’s influences are clearly laid out in the artist’s statement, the playing is fresh and original – not at all derivative. Very compelling; a pleasure to listen to.”

Members of the jury included:
• Andrew Craig, composer, performer
• Renee Rosnes, jazz pianist, composer
• Paul Tynan, Associate Professor of Music, St. Francis Xavier University.

Artist’s Statement

I have been a music enthusiast since my early childhood years, but it was not until late high school, which was, incidentally, the first time I heard Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and Miles’ Four & More, that I began translating my enthusiasm to the piano. Shortly after discovering my passion for music, I realized that it had consumed me, and that I could no longer live without it.

Through music, I believe people have the ability to share, converse, transcend, understand, develop, and enlighten. I believe that music is earth’s one universal language. Anything and everything can be, and is, inspiring, whether it is something that is good or bad is irrelevant. Everything I have experienced in life, and every person I’ve met along the way has contributed in some way to my music, and who I am. Ultimately, music, for me, is a tool for expression, communication, and flourishing. When I perform music for an audience I feel as if I am manifesting my true self, as well as adding my two cents, so to speak. My goal is to inspire, help, enlighten, and encourage others through music — the same way others have done for me. Something I have recently discovered is that it is nice to be the least experienced/skilled musician in a band, because the only direction you can go is up, and when you are among good musicians you will find that they will help you on your way up. To me, that is what music is about, helping others grow and express themselves by expressing yourself.

Having no professional training for my first two years playing piano caused me to listen to music with complete ignorance, as far as what was theoretically going on harmonically, melodically, and rhythmically. I owe the majority of my development to those two years of ignorance. Sitting at home on the piano bench with headphones, A Love Supreme, and Miles’ Nefertiti was my land of milk and honey. Discovering the abundance of sounds, scales, rhythms, and textures on both these records for the first time is something I will never forget. Through the close examination of great bands, such as Miles’ second quintet and Coltrane’s quartet, I have managed to devise an effective method to help my band mates and I conceptualize, and perform my compositions. Though in some cases sheet music can be very helpful, I find that a lot of music, especially my own, is easiest to comprehend and internalize if it is taught orally. For me, learning by osmosis has never let me down, if I can sing something, and then transcribe it to my instrument from memory, I feel I have truly internalized it. This method was inspired by one of my favorite musicians, Lennie Tristano. I use this oral approach while rehearsing with my band, and it is always very effective for internalizing music. As well, it allows us to focus more on the group dynamic as a whole, rather than trying to focus on each texture individually. I like to define a band as a single organism made up of several textures, as did Miles and Coltrane, I believe. Also, I do not view a traditional jazz quartet (bass, drums, piano, tenor) as different than, say, a string quartet playing Schoenberg. Each is comprised of four correlating textures contributing to the overall sound of the ensemble. Whenever I am in a playing situation I try to be conscious of the numerous textures in the room, and whether they are contributing to the overall sound in a positive way.

Since I only began playing music in grade 12, near the end of high school, I knew I had no time to waste if I was to move to Toronto in a year or so to begin my career as a professional musician. Practicing came very easily to me, not because of any natural talent, but because I simply love to play the piano, and I love to compose. When you break it down, I do not believe that all great musicians have a foundation built from inherent, or natural talent. Great musicians are great musicians because they love music, and sitting in a room with an instrument for hours and hours can be like meditation for such a person.

Improvement is the most important thing to me, I will always be content as long as I am improving each and every day, and I can guarantee my own improvement by exercising four simple techniques: Practicing, recording, playing, and performing. Practicing alone with my instrument is fundamental, but making sure to always practice things I cannot already execute. I record myself doing so, listen back, discard the things I do not like, and repeat and archive the things that I do like. My first year in Toronto at Humber was a year full of playing and meeting new musicians. In retrospect, I must have played every night for an entire year with hundreds of new musicians, and I rarely felt comfortable, but feeling uncomfortable is the first, and most important step to take when trying to feel comfortable. Live performances play a pivotal role when trying to refine your sound as a musician. It is important to ingest and digest all criticism, whether good or bad, and understand why people like or dislike what you are doing, and try to accommodate not just yourself, but others as well. When I compose, and practice, I try and step out of my own shoes to hear the music from an outsider’s point of view. I ask questions like: Would someone who knows nothing about the jazz idiom or music theory still be captivated by what I am playing? I am playing too much? Should I play sparser? I believe these are important questions to try and answer while playing, performing, practicing, and more generally, listening.

To put it simply, I know I will be content for the rest of my life as long as I keep an open mind, continue to share my music, never stop improving, feed off of the people and things that inspire me, and take all opportunities and criticism that come my way.