Getting the word on jazz

August 24, 2019 20:04
Marquis Hill

Marquis Hill. (photo credit: TODD ROSENBERG)

The cultural consumer jury appears to be still out, but for my money, by definition, jazz has to evolve. If it is an art form it simply has to grow, to send out feelers into previously unchartered realms and, yes, to take risks. There is little point in a jazz musician taking a stage to reel off a bunch of bebop numbers just as they were played or recorded 70-odd years ago.

Marquis Hill certainly follows the creative evolutionary approach. Over the past few years the 30-year-old Chicagoan trumpeter-composer has elicited kudos by the bucket-load for his innovative approach to the base discipline, fusing spoken word, hip-hop and contemporary beats and breaks into his jazzy lines that clearly feed off the roots timeline. He has demonstrated that, in no uncertain terms, with his Blacktet Quintet of fellow Chicago natives with whom he will appear at the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat (Sunday, 10:30 p.m.).

“The way I look at the music is that it is a continuum. It is a big circle. It’s all connected,” says Hill. “I feel that you have to be rooted in the tradition of jazz – the tradition of the language, the history of the music, the tradition of bebop. But also the music is forever changing.” Hill is a firm believer in the arts-life cross-fertilization equation. “It is just like society is forever changing. I think that is one of the beautiful thing about jazz music. Right now it is in a phase where things are starting to get more modern, and I’m happy to be a part of that.”

The jazz police may consider it a bitter pill to swallow, but you just gotta go with the flow. “I think it’s beautiful that the [jazz] music’s forever changing. I think that’s what makes it stand out from other genres. If you listen to a classical concerto, they’re played the same for the past hundreds of years. This music is forever growing.”
That makes complete sense. Hill is not only the sum of his accrued technical knowledge and skill, or even his proficiency in the jazz idiom. He is also the upshot of his times, and social, sociopolitical and cultural climes. He was born in Chicago in 1989, not New Orleans of 1901, like pioneer trumpeter Louis Armstrong or 1920 Kansas City, like modern jazz founding father saxophonist Charlie Parker. “My upbringing, and the things I was exposed to, they all affect the way that I hear music, they all affect the way I approach music. I was born when hip-hop was being invented, so when you listen to my music you hear the tradition of jazz but you also hear a heavy hip-hop influence.”

WHILE HILL is very much a product of his environment and historical slot, he admits to being prone to some temporal fantasizing. “I look at the history of the music and, especially for black American music, the ‘70s was when the music was at its height. Jazz, funk, R&B, Motown – all of these things were, in my opinion, at the pinnacle of their peak. So I dream of being alive back then.”

The trumpeter would not have objected to being born even earlier, either. “The 1950s was when bebop was being invented. I would have loved to have been around during that era, to see how these cats were actually composing and speaking about the music and the language. They were literally inventing it in the moment. That was very beautiful. I wish I could have been a part of that.”

While “educating” may be a little on the heavy side, Hill definitely wants to bring as many people as possible from all walks of life and generations into his burgeoning creative fold. “That’s the goal. I want to let people realize that it really is coming from the same place,” he says of the traditional jazz-hip-hop chain. “That’s the music that was invented, here, in America. It’s all coming from the same tree.” The arboreal analogy fits the expansive bill. “Trees have roots. The music is rooted in something. Trees have branches and they grow into different shapes and different places. But all the branches are rooted in this one thing. I think that’s the beautiful part about this music.

“Basically, it is about keeping our minds, hearts and ears open, and just letting the notes flow into us, and wash over us, and trying our damnedest not to be overly judgmental.”

While he may not have been around when the music was being created, he got himself several earfuls of the sounds and vibes that emerged in the late ‘60s and ‘70s from across the black musical spectrum. “The majority of the music I heard coming up was ‘60s and ‘70s soul music, and also gospel. I was also exposed to jazz from around fourth grade. Before that it was all soul, gospel and pop. So that is ingrained into my memory banks.”

Unsurprisingly, the first piece of jazz vinyl the youngster heard was fronted by a trumpeter, although it was not just about the lad’s instrument. “It was Lee Morgan’s Candy,” Hill recalls. “That led me in the direction of falling in love with this music we call jazz. I had started playing the trumpet a few months earlier. I was exposed to Lee Morgan, so I already had a connection with the horn. So once I was given that record I fell in love with jazz, and I fell in love with the sound of the trumpet. Lee Morgan had a very beautiful vocal-like sound.” Hill had found a valuable source of inspiration from the off. “Once I heard that I knew I wanted to sound like that. I wanted to be able to sing through my instrument.”

HILL MAY have found his ultimate pathway to musical expression with a little help from Morgan but, in fact, he spent a few months pounding the skins prior to picking up the trumpet. So did that affect the way he approached the horn? “I would say having playing the drums definitely influenced me from a rhythm aspect.” That is an ongoing pursuit. “I still play drums a little today,” he adds. “It stuck with me. It affects even the way I listen to music. I listen to the rhythmic aspect of the music as well as the melodic aspect. When I’m listening to a record I am listening to the horns but I am also really tuning in to the drums and how they are interacting with the rhythm section. I think that comes from the history of the music, but also from the fact that I started on the drums.”

That also comes into the equation of his current vehicle of performing and recording his music with the band he is bringing to Eilat. The group has been around since 2011, and although the personnel have been tweaked a little, having a working band is no mean feat in the financially demanding jazz cauldron, and is a definitive boon for the leader and principal composer. “I think it’s really cool when you can write for specific people,” Hill notes. “You know who’s in your band. You know their strengths, you know their specific sound, and writing for them makes composing interesting for me.”

That also allows the leader generous room for maneuver when it comes to envelope-pushing. “That’s a question I am always asking myself. What are the challenges, in everything I do? You know, you learn from challenges.”
The Blacktet’s Red Sea Jazz Festival audience can expect to get a dynamic experience on Sunday evening, with plenty of fresh input along the way. “I’m working on something to release this fall, it’s more like an EP, kind of extended project. It includes spoken word and interviews, a couple of interviews, spoken word excerpts.” Then again Hill is not looking to unveil the whole of the forthcoming offering next week. “We will primarily be playing the music from my latest project, Modern Flows Vol. 2.” Maybe we’ll get to hear some of the EP material live at some stage, too. “I’m sure we’ll be back in Israel sometime.” Sounds like good news all around.
For tickets and more information about the Red Sea Jazz Festival:

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