Music Review: Marquis Hill - New Gospel
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 built on what prior ones constructed its a house where each room is designed by a different architect. While the individual rooms make use of the same raw materials, shape, form and construction can be so radically different in appearance you could be forgiven for not recognizing them as even serving similar functions. Yet a room, whether it is square, rectangular or circular is still a room, and jazz whether rag time, big band, be-bop, avant-garde or fusion is still jazz.
Sometimes its easy to think that we call a piece of music jazz simply because we can't find any other genre to file it under. While it's true that the line between genres blurs more and more as musicians draw upon increasingly diverse influences for their inspiration, most still retain enough of their distinct character to distinguish one from another. What distinguishs jazz from other genres are 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. It's these elements that make jazz both one of the most fascinating forms of popular music but also one of the most difficult for the uninitiated to appreciate. Unlike the majority of popular music which requires very little from its listeners, the better the jazz the more an audience has to pay attention.
This was brought home to me once again listening to the new release by trumpeterMarquis 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 are the mark of a talent for composition.
The opening track of the disc, "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. With bass having been reduced to nothing more than a sternum bashing metronome in most popular music these days, John Tate's intricate playing on this track, and throughout the disc, are a reminder rhythm doesn't have to be monotonous or loud to be effective. While it makes for an intriguing opening to a 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 on this disc show an affinity for the music that is stunning. The title track, "New Gospel" starts with a 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 ever hear in any other type of music. It's like five individual voice singing their own interpretations of one idea. Harmony doesn't come from the intermingling of tone, it comes 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 played far too shrill and harsh for my taste. Obviously there are exceptions, but I usually find brass players seem to lack the subtlety of those who play reed instruments. Hill is one of those exceptions 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 twenty-four 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 already fulfilling whatever promise he might have shown, but exceeding anybody's reasonable expectations of what a person of his should be able to accomplish. A seasoned side man and performer prior to its release, this disc reveals him to be 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 have 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.
(Article first published as Music Review: Marquis Hill - New Gospel on Blogcritics.)