Review - Marquis Hill Blacktet Live in Chicago
It can be challenging to keep a good thing going. For the past five years, Marquis Hill has risen to this challenge by leading a stellar group of largely Chicago-based musicians. Together, they have recorded four albums, and toured the country in the process. More recently, Hill has ascended into the jazz spotlight after winning the Thelonious Monk Competition and touring with legendary bassist, Marcus Miller. Despite these recent accolades, Hill seems intent on continuing his ascent with the same musicians that have been playing with him from the beginning. In January 2016, Marquis Hill and his group, The Blacktet, completed a run of shows in their hometown of Chicago, IL. This series gave them a chance to return home as they developed the new material for Hill’s next recording project, which was slated to take place the week after the Chicago performances had wrapped up. I had the privilege of seeing the last of these shows at Chicago's “California Clipper”, and hearing the new material in advance of recording. This venue provided an intimate space for myself and the audience to take part in a sneak peak at what Hill has in store for his next album. If this performance is any indication, Hill and his band have no intentions of growing complacent in the success of their previous work together. Often times, bands that play together for an extended period of time grow stagnant. The Blacktet however, does not fall in this category. It appears Hill is keeping this band together for good reason, as they have developed a clean and unique sound, and an unmistakable affinity for each other’s musical personalities. For the performance at the “Clipper”, the band consisted of Christopher Mcbride (Alto Sax), Justin Thomas (Vibraphone), Joshua Ramos (Bass), Makaya McCraven (Drums), and Juan Pastor (Percussion). One of the standout selections from the performance was the band’s take on the Donald Byrd composition, “Fly Little Bird Fly.” The band performed the song in a medium tempo 7/4 groove, in place of the up-tempo 4/4 setting the song is usually performed in. Instead of making the composition a vehicle for fast “eighth note-oriented” improvisation, the band gave it a much slower, danceable treatment. The final product was quite refreshing!
Another standout selection from the evening was Hill’s trio arrangement of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile”. The trio featured unique instrumentation with Josh Ramos on bass, Juan Pastor on cajón, and Hill on trumpet. This arrangement, also in 7/4, was up-tempo with Ramos providing an infections clave and Pastor providing an undercurrent of complex counter-rhythms. Despite the complexity, the essence of the timeless classic was still intact, and the instrumentation provided a refreshing take on the trio setting. Throughout the performance the band maintained their intensely cohesive sound. Each member of the rhythm section clearly embraced their role within the context of the music. McCraven’s playing provided unrelenting groove in various styles, and was complemented by Ramos’ solid low-end foundation. Ramos and McCraven locked in beautifully throughout the entire evening. Justin Thomas’ vibraphone performance added unique and defined harmonic textures, while also leaving ample space for Hill and McBride to freely explore during their improvisations. Perhaps the most consistently striking aspect of the band’s performance was the way Hill and McBride played in tandem. Throughout the evening they seamlessly functioned as a singular, unique sound, with its own concept of articulation and melodic phrasing. It was a beautiful thing to see and hear. Given Hill’s affinity for performing his own original music, I was surprised to find the performance incorporated such a great deal of jazz standards. Yet, each standard was given a fresh new setting, unique to Hill’s musical taste and flare as an arranger. It will be intriguing to see if this is the direction Hill will be heading for his next album. In January, the week after this performance, Marquis Hill and the Blacktet completed the recording of Hill’s fifth album, which is slated for summer 2016 release, via the Concord Music Group. The album will feature all of the musicians from the performance at “The California Clipper”, with a few additional, special guests. It is clear that the chemistry of the Blacktet has grown stronger, and continues to evolve as the artists continue working together. This is a testament to Hill’s chops as a bandleader, and ever-evolving composer and arranger. If the music on Hill’s next project is anything like the selections from this performance, it will be something to look forward to, and will further solidify Hill as one of the leading instrumental voices of his generation.