Andrew Hill Nonet

Pianist Andrew Hill wasn't one of the more ostentatious presences on the character-driven free-jazz scene of the late '60s, but his playing -- imbued by a decidedly spiritual, unapologetically cerebral tone -- remains one of the most distinctive survivors of the era.

With:
Musicians: Andrew Hill, John Herbert, Eric McPherson, Mark Taylor, Ron Horton, Keyon Harrold, Curtis Fowlkes, Howard Johnson, JD Parran.

Pianist Andrew Hill wasn’t one of the more ostentatious presences on the character-driven free-jazz scene of the late ’60s, but his playing — imbued by a decidedly spiritual, unapologetically cerebral tone — remains one of the most distinctive survivors of the era. This one-off perf, a delayed celebration of the 2003 release of the lost classic “Passing Ships” — which was actually recorded in 1969 — gave full voice to that uniqueness, thanks to Hill’s continually quizzical revisiting of ideas that he refuses to surrender to stasis.

If there was any doubt that Hill and company saw this as a capital-e Event, it was dispelled by the elegant fanfare that preceded the opener “Noon Tide” — an intricately-crafted piece that allowed each of the nonet’s primary players plenty of room to improvise.

Trumpeter Keyon Harrold took the lion’s share of the leads here, preaching fervently over what sounded like a choir of reed players, and while the 69-year-old pianist held himself in check for much of the song, he burst to the forefront on “Sideways,” a purposefully jarring composition rife with cross-currents.

Howard Johnson, the only member of the original “Passing Ships” ensemble to join Hill for this occasion, provided an intriguing piece to the sonic puzzle throughout the set, his tuba and bass clarinet lines acting as something of a liaison between the brighter notes of the brass section and the rhythm section’s ominous rumble.

That structure was particularly effective on “Cascade,” a heady piece that might’ve provided Anthony Braxton with some inspiration for his early ’70s work.

While the program was ostensibly geared toward celebrating the past, Hill was adamant about refusing to allow his playing to be preserved in amber — a point he drove home with a brief, improvisational encore that, while largely bucolic, exuded a restlessness that belied the fact that Hill is soon to enter his seventh decade.

Andrew Hill Nonet

Merkin Hall; 445 seats; $35 top.

Production: Presented inhouse. Reviewed Nov. 14, 2006.

Cast: Musicians: Andrew Hill, John Herbert, Eric McPherson, Mark Taylor, Ron Horton, Keyon Harrold, Curtis Fowlkes, Howard Johnson, JD Parran.

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