What is jazz? Unlike other forms of popular music that grew out of the twentieth century – in fact, unlike most forms of music, period – jazz resists an easy definition. Constantly evolving as each new generation of players build upon what prior ones constructed it's a house wherein each room is designed by a different architect. While these rooms each make use of the same raw materials, their component elements can be so radically different you'd be forgiven for not recognizing them as even serving similar functions. Yet a room is still a room; and jazz – whether rag time, big band, be-bop, avant-garde, or fusion – is still jazz.
While it's true that the line between genres blurs more and more as musicians draw upon increasingly diverse influences, most still retain enough of their distinct character to distinguish one from another. What ultimately distinguishes jazz from other genres is the essential roles played by rhythm and improvisation. Sure all music has rhythm, but none make use of as complex and intricate patterns as jazz, and few make as much use of improvisation as its musicians. These elements make jazz both one of the most fascinating forms of popular music but also one of the most difficult for some to fully appreciate lest they not pay close attention.
This was brought home to me once again listening to the new release by trumpeter Marquis Hill, New Gospel, on Delmark Records. On this, his first recording under his own name, Hill shows why he is considered one of the foremost players and composers of a new generation of jazz players. Not only do the eight songs on the disc show him capable of handling everything from the soft bluesy side of jazz to the more free-form improvisational sounds of bop, they demonstrate a feel for how the various parts go into making up a whole that is reflects a talent for composition.
The opening track, "Law and Order," immediately grabs your attention with its bass introduction. Establishing the complicated rhythmic pattern for the song, the opening bars draw you in and then hold you there as they underpin the entire song. John Tate's intricate playing is a reminder that rhythm doesn't have to be monotonous or loud to be effective. While it makes for an intriguing opening to the disc, it also gives us a taste of how well Hill balances his position as band leader with his role of composer. For throughout the disc he shows himself ever willing to share the lead-instrument spotlight in order to serve the needs of the material instead of taking every solo for himself.