Hill spent considerable time and care preparing his band for the recording of The Poet, including performing songs from the upcoming album during a February engagement at Chicago’s Jazz Showcase less than two weeks before he entered the studio. Among those in attendance was Chicago Tribune arts critic Howard Reich.
“Considering the melodic beauty of Hill’s themes and the subtle ways the band dispatched them, the recording could be an important one for this ensemble,” Reich predicted in his review.
The Poet opens with “Mary’s Intro,” a poem written by Kevin Sparks and recited by Mary E. Lawson, and closes with “Legends Outro,” a Free Style by Keith Winford of the Chicago hip-hop band Legend Haz It. Hill’s sextet, which he calls the Blacktet, provides the instrumental backing on both. The remaining 13 tracks place the spotlight on the Blacktet—Hill, alto saxophonist Christopher McBride, vibraphonist Justin Thomas, pianist Josh Moshier, bassist Joshua Ramos, and drummer Makaya McCraven—with Juan Pastor adding his Latin percussion prowess to three. All, with the exception of brief improvised interludes by Thomas, Moshier, and Hill and a rendition of the Bill Lee ballad “Again Never” from his son Spike’s motion picture Mo’ Better Blues, were composed by the trumpeter.
The title of the new CD was inspired by remarks made by Hill’s friend, poet Kevin Sparks, after hearing his previous release, 2012’s Sounds of the City. “Your music is so poetic,” Hill recalls Sparks saying. “It’s modern, but at the same time, it’s in the tradition. It reminds me of great poetry. ”
The remarkable empathy between Hill and saxophonist McBride stems from their having played together since they were classmates at Northern Illinois University (NIU) nearly a decade ago. McBride played on Hill’s two earlier CDs—Sounds of the City and 2011’s New Gospel—as did pianist Moshier.
“The thing that really, really attracted me to Chris is the way that we blend,” Hill says. “He has a really dark sound for an alto saxophone, and I try to go for a dark sound on the trumpet. We’re kind of like the same person when it comes to playing horn parts and cutoffs and how to articulate and how much vibrato to put on the notes.”
Marquis Hill, 26, was raised in the Chatham neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. He took up drums in the fourth grade but soon switched to trumpet after hearing his older female cousin playing one. (He still has a drum set and does occasional gigs as a drummer.) By the time he was in sixth grade, the young trumpeter was a member of the South Shore Youth Jazz Ensemble. It was one of several prestigious student bands in which Hill played while growing up, including the Ravinia Jazz Scholars, in which he first came in contact with future mentors Bobby Broom, Tito Carillo, and Willie Pickens.
Hill graduated from Northern Illinois University in 2009 with a B.A. in music education and from DePaul University in 2012 with a M.A. in jazz pedagogy. For the past four summers, he has taught high school students at the Birch Creek Music Performance Center in Egg Harbor, Wisconsin, and he recently joined the faculty at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In 2012, he won the International Jazz Trumpet Competition in Atlanta.
While still a student at NIU, Hill became one of the most in-demand jazz trumpeters in the Windy City. When not leading his Blacktet, the trumpeter currently works with saxophonist Ernest Dawkins (another major mentor), pianist Willerm Delisfort, bassist Matt Ulery, the Chicago Jazz Orchestra, and groups led by his own sidemen McBride and Thomas.
Hill and the Blacktet return to the Jazz Showcase 10/31 through 11/3 to celebrate the release of The Poet. “I want my music to feel good,” Hill states. “No matter how modern it sounds, I want the swing and the groove and the feeling to be there.”