by Jackie Anderson
Welcome to the Jazz Lounge. The focus for this session is on a new jazz release from Marquis Hill, you may consider adding to your collection. His new release, “The Way We Play”, pays homage to his formative years in Chicago, with stirring makeovers of jazz standards.
For the past five years, 29-year-old trumpeter Marquis Hill has been lighting up the Chicago jazz scene with his sleek approach to modern jazz, which often incorporates elements of spoken word and hip-hop. “JazzTimes” praised his trumpet playing – “His articulation, precise but unlabored, calls to mind the precedent of Clifford Brown, while his bravura phrasing suggests an equal immersion in Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw. All of which surely helped his cause at [the 2014] Thelonious Monk International Competition, where he won first prize.”
Marquis Hill now divides most of his time between his hometown of Chicago and New York City – a decision that provides him a greater pool of jazz talents to help hone his musicianship. With the June 26, 2016 release of “The Way We Play”, Marquis’ debut for Concord Jazz, his profile as a new commanding voice on the jazz scene will undoubtedly rise.
On “The Way We Play”, Marquis Hill fronts his regular ensemble of four years, the Blacktet, which consists of alto saxophonist Christopher McBride, vibraphonist Justin Thomas, drummer Makaya McCraven, and bassist Joshua Ramos. It’s a smart tactic, because it plays to the strengths of Marquis as a bandleader, and affords the music a vivacious group accord that often comes from years of playing together. However, he flips the script on the new album. Instead of offering entirely original material as he did on his last three albums, he revisits a handful of jazz standards. He says, “I want to pay homage to some of my favorite jazz standards and American songbook classics. These are some of the songs that I came up playing in various jam sessions. These songs really taught me how to play jazz.”
“The Way We Play” is hardly a color-by-numbers jazz standards album. As he does on his previous albums, Marquis Hill revitalizes the material by placing heavier emphasis on the groove, which enables the compositions to resonate more to a 21st century jazz audience – hence the album’s title. He says, “I really want to make it very clear that this is the sound of my band, which is uniquely Chicago. I wanted to put everything on the table. This is the way that we play.”
The Chicago Tribune asserts that the spirit of Chicago is deeply integral to his music – “…his music crystallizes the hard-hitting, hard-swinging spirit of Chicago jazz.” Chi-town references are noted at the very beginning with “Welcome / Sirius (‘Bulls Theme’) “, on which guest vocalist Meagan McNeal introduces the band with the same hypnotic theme used by the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s when Michael Jordan played with the team.
Next, Marquis Hill goes into an entrancing take on a Gigi Bryce 1950s minor-blues classic with the two-part mashup “The Way We Play / Minority”. The ensemble accentuates Gryce’s original opening bass line groove before Marquis and Christopher McBride articulate the zigzagging melodic figure in unison. The rhythm soon breaks into a quicksilver swing forward motion that sweeps Marquis’ authoritative improvisation. The inventive makeover also features spoken word artist Harold Green III delivering lyrical prose that aptly describes the Chicago sound.
“Prelude”, a dulcet trumpet solo, gives way to the mesmerizing rendition of Horace Silver’s late 1950s composition “Moon Rays”, with which Makaya McCraven and Joshua Ramos underpin with a skittering, almost drum-n-bass flow. Marquis says, “I learned that tune when I was a sophomore in high school in an after-school program called the Merit School of Music. The melody is so beautiful and so singable.”
The mood simmers down for Marquis’ take on Victor Young and Ned Washington’s classic ballad “My Foolish Heart.” In addition to the subtle, R & B rhythmic flourishes lurking underneath, Marquis’ makeover also stars Christie Dashiell, who brings a soothing, sunny verve to the fore, as his muted trumpet interjects melodic asides.
Amorous overtones continue with a stunning reading of Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke’s “Polka Dots And Moonbeams”, of which Marquis almost plays entirely solo on flugelhorn, which allows listeners to fully luxuriate inside his velvety tone and graceful improvisation.
With the help of percussionist Juan Pastor, the tempo picks back up with an Afro-Cuban take on Donald Byrd’s mid-1960s burner “Fly Little Bird Fly”, another tune highlighted by Harold Green III’s uplifting prose. This tune is especially personal for Marquis, because Byrd is one of his biggest and earliest jazz influences. He says, “When I was in high school, he was the cat that I wanted to sound like. I was on a mission to find every record that Donald Byrd was on.”
The Chicago connection between Marquis Hill and the material becomes seven more pronounced with the delightful cover of “Maiden Voyage”, a mid-1960s standard, written by fellow Windy City native Herbie Hancock. On Marquis’ version, he slowed the tempo and dropped the key to G-flat to give the evocative composition darker hues.
After bursting through a flinty exploration through the Thelonious Monk mid-1960s staple “Straight No Chaser”, Marquis digs deep into the post-bop canon and unearths Carmell Jones’ rare 1965 tune, “Beep Durple”, on which the frontline horns deftly tackle the tricky melody atop a fractured yet forward motion rhythmic bed. The rendition also features trombonist and fellow-Chicagoan Vincent Gardner of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.
Peruvian rhythms burst forth from Juan Pastor’s drumming on “Juan’s Interlude”, before the album concludes with an Afro-Latin 7/4 version of Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 signature tune “Smile”. This rendition makes a fitting conclusion for “The Way We Play”, an impressive refurbishing of old favorites with a decidedly 21st century twist.
This album is definitely worth checking out, and consider adding it to your collection. I certainly enjoyed the music.
That’s it for this session of the Jazz Lounge. You can always reach me at: email@example.com. I want to thank all of you who have reached out. Your kind words are very much appreciated.
Until next time, stay cool & keep it jazzy!
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