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.
As a result not only do you hear some wonderful jazz, you also have the opportunity to hear the unusual for one recording; a variety of instruments showing what they can bring to the music. From Kenneth Oshodi’s guitar in “Law and Order,” “New Gospel,” and “Autumn;” Chris Madsen’s tenor and Christopher McBride’s alto saxophones; Joshua Moshier’s piano to Jeremy Cunningham’s work over the drum kit, each of the musicians here show a stunning affinity for the music. The title track, “New Gospel,” starts with wonderful interplay between drums, guitar, piano, and bass, with the saxophone joining in and then springing forward into a solo. The saxophone then passes off to Hill on trumpet who in turn hands off to Oshodi on guitar. After a few bars, though, both Hill and Madsen fill out the sound of the delicately picked guitar, sustaining what each started with their own solos. Woven together with the rhythm carried by drums, bass, and piano, the final result is an auditory feast.
For those who are inclined to dismiss jazz as undisciplined or lacking in focus, Hill’s music in general, and “New Gospel” specifically, is a perfect rebuttal. Within its just over five minutes the song establishes a base out of which the three solos flow with ease before coming to a satisfying conclusion. Yet within that structure there is a spirit and abandon one doesn’t often hear in other types of music. It’s like five individual voices singing their own interpretations of one idea. Harmony doesn’t come from the intermingling of tone, but rather from the players’ ability to communicate that idea to the listener with their “voice.”
Just as Hill is seemingly comfortable composing in any style of jazz he attempts, the same applies to his playing. His trumpet can be soft and seductive as he teases out the notes on bluesy numbers like the title track or the driving force behind harder-edged pieces like “A Portrait Of Fola.” To be honest I’ve always been leery of trumpet playing, as I find it often too shrill and harsh for my taste. Obviously there are exceptions, but I usually find brass players as lacking the subtlety of those who play reed instruments. Hill is an exception as he is able to milk nuances out of his instrument that give it a far wider range than I’m used to hearing. Listening to him play flugelhorn on the tribute to the late, great saxophonist Fred Anderson, “Goodbye Fred,” you can’t help but be impressed with both his control and ability to communicate emotions.
At 24 years of age in July 2011 when he released New Gospel, Marquis Hill isn’t just another promising jazz musician. In fact this disc shows that not only is he already fulfilling whatever promise he might have originally shown, but he’s exceeding anybody’s reasonable expectations of what a person of his age should be able to accomplish. A seasoned side man and performer prior to its release, he demonstrates with this disc that he’s a composer of the first order as well. Jazz is many things to many people, but it is the rare musician who is as obviously comfortable performing and composing in as many facets of it as Hill. It’s been a while since there has been a collection of young jazz musicians capable of capturing the public’s imagination and ensuring the music garners the attention it deserves. With players like Hill out there, there’s the chance we might just be witness to the beginnings of a new jazz renaissance.