The third time is the charm…just like the first and second times.
Chicago’s rising star trumpet player Marquis Hill wowed us just two years ago with his New Gospel debut, and quickly confirmed with Sounds of the City the following year that it was no fluke. Next week The Poet keeps the album-a-year ritual going, confirming again that Hill just has too much releasable material to hold back.The Poet continues on Hill’s signature sound, earnestly delivered straight-ahead jazz glazed with a whiff of smooth, head-nodding RnB and even a hint of hip-hop.
At this point, Hill has settled on a stable working band he calls the Blacktet, anchored by him and mainstays alto saxophonist Christopher McBride and pianist Josh Moshier. Joining them is a groove-proficient rhythm section with Joshua Ramos on acoustic bass and Makaya McCraven on drums (percussionist Juan Pastor accentuates the groove on a trio of tracks).
The addition of Justin Thomas at vibes might be the key addition, however. The colors and soft glowing tones he brings is a good fit for the vibe Hill seeks to lay on his listeners. He adds delicacy to the figure used to back poetry (by Mary E. Lawson) and rap (by Kevin Sparks) that rounds out the edges and sizzles on his single line phrases during “Return of the Student.” He comps with accuracy on the agitated “The Color of Fear” while mixing it up authoritatively on his solo turn, and “Justin’s Interlude” is his own, graceful showcase.
Hill’s trumpet and flugelhorn sets the tone for everyone else: a slightly fuzzy timbre and a delivery that can be trace all the way back to Armstrong but is closer in style of Clifford Brown. He can sail right through knotted cluster of notes Freddie Hubbard style (“Return of the Student”) and bop like a champ (“The Color of Fear”). He puts on a mute for the soulful, melancholy ballad Giovanna: emitting clean, heartfelt tones, and shows on “Marquis’ Interlude” that he doesn’t need the mute to evoke that same vulnerable mood (both tracks are too good to be as brief as they are).
Those flawless harmony and unison parts all over The Poet belies McBride’s long history with Hill and like Hill, McBride can offer up meaty solos with an effortless delivery. Moreover, the range of his alto extends well into tenor territory; “Nouvelle Orleans” is one of several examples of this style. You can’t help but to notice Ramos, his funkified, woody delivery adds spunk to nearly every tune, like the calypso rhythms found on “B-Tune,” the complex rhythms created with McCraven on “Nouvelle Orleans” and busy swing on “The Poet.”
Hill wrote the vast majority of these songs, and his composing is another one his strong suits. The song he wrote for his mother, “Vella,” pulls together a shifty, percolating rhythm and dark, descending figures that heighten the allure of the song beyond the superb solos by Thomas, McBride and Hill.
It doesn’t take a lot of time to figure out why this album is titled The Poet. Though the music is set to poetry to start and finish the record, the lyrical flow is steady throughout the record, a hallmark of the Marquis Hill sound. And that’s why Hill is three for three.