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One of pianist and composer Andrew Hill’s most alluring albums, Passing Ships sat on the shelf for 34 years. Rescued by Hill and producer Michael Cuscuna and released in 2003, the material revealed Hill’s brilliance as a writer and arranger for a nonet that beautifully realized his vision.
Hill, who led two sessions for the album in November 1969, employed a tonal palette comprising one reed, a complement of brass and a rhythm section. Seven tunes make up a cohesive whole, from the swinging opener “Sideways” to the indelibly funky “Plantation Bag” to the exotic Latin groover “Noon Tide.” The exuberant “Cascade” features dizzying solos from saxophonist Joe Farrell and trumpeter Woody Shaw, with Hill’s onrush of notes mimicking a waterfall. The title track is a shimmering beauty: Farrell’s English horn establishes a wistful mood that’s expanded upon by respective trombone, trumpet, tenor and piano solos. Unsurprisingly, Hill’s comps and solos throughout the album are understated yet authoritative, revealing his highly individual sound.
Just 19 at the time, drummer Lenny White displays the sinewy excitement that got him invited to Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew sessions just a few months earlier, while veteran bassist Ron Carter’s rock-solid grooves are the hub around which the songs revolve. Overall, the music on Passing Ships sounds so fresh and timeless that modern listeners may marvel over how it could have moldered so long in the vault. —Bob Weinberg