BRATTLEBORO—Trumpeter Marquis Hill will appear at the Vermont Jazz Center on Saturday, Feb. 17, at 8 p.m., with his group, the Blacktet, which also features Joel Ross on vibraphone, James Francies on piano, Harish Raghavan on acoustic bass, and Jonathan Pinson on the drums.
Hill emerged into the jazz limelight in 2014 after earning the prestigious top prize at the International Thelonious Monk Competition. Leading up to this, his success was gradual and patiently earned — the result of a clear vision and a disciplined approach nurtured by mentors, hard work, and natural talent.
After receiving a master’s degree in jazz pedagogy, Hill won first place in both the 2012 International Trumpet Guild’s Jazz Improvisation Competition and the 2013 Carmine Caruso International Jazz Trumpet Solo Competition.
One of his mentors, the masterful pianist Willie Pickens, said in an interview that, when Marquis Hill would come over to his house to study, “he was always focused ... every moment that we were together he was trying to get something out of me.”
Hill’s earnest motivation to learn and grow are reflected in his successes: his prolific yet careful output, the proficiency he demonstrates on his instrument, his brilliant musical arrangements, and his abilities as a bandleader to maintain an identifiable, tightly knit sound even when playing in varied styles.
Hill’s music is influenced by his Chicago upbringing; He is keenly aware of its importance in the history of jazz and his place as one of a host of legendary trumpeters.
During the great migration of the early 20th century, Chicago was considered a city of opportunity for African-Americans fleeing the oppression of the South. Its development as a haven of black culture was critical during the 1920s and its proud heritage continues to this day.
In an interview with Neon Jazz, Hill acknowledges his felt kinship and respect for Louis Armstrong who, he says, “walked these streets and claimed them to be one of the places where jazz was created.”
Hill never misses an opportunity to laud his Chicago influences — including Diane Ellis, his hip fifth-grade band director who gave him a recording by Lee Morgan that changed his life. He has also expressed gratitude to a coterie of legendary Chicago-based mentors who guided him as a youth. Among others, these include Bobby Broom, Tito Carrillo, Maggie Brown, Fred Anderson, Von Freeman, Professor Ronald Cart, the AACM, and Ernest Dawkins.
Hill is an open-minded musician who thinks of the big picture. He values spoken word and vocals and intersperses them among his instrumental compositions. Each of his albums is conceptually complete. His body of work illustrates his position as a creative, productive millennial unafraid to utilize all the resources of his generation.
Although his performance at the Jazz Center will be acoustic, he is sometimes joined by electronic instruments and effects (his 2014 EP, Modern Flows, is primarily a hip hop album). Hill’s compositions are carefully constructed gems that combine modern rhythmical grooves with accessible and respectful nods to those who came before him.
Considering his vast array of influences, Hill’s sound is surprisingly understated. Dynamics are essential to his concept, especially quieter passages that draw the listener inside the music.
In an interview where he was asked about how he developed his personal trumpet sound, Hill described a “sub-tone” technique he discovered while listening to recordings of the legendary saxophonist Lester Young; this technique gives him a sound that is quiet, full, and round, and that doesn’t sacrifice direction or power when they are needed.
In a 2013 interview, Hill was asked who were his main influences. His quick response was “Donald Byrd, Freddie Hubbard, Duke Ellington, Dizzy, Bird, Wynton Marsalis, Roy Hargrove, and Nicolas Peyton,” all standard bearers of jazz, universally acknowledged for their excellence and creativity.
He was also asked about what music he had listened to that day. His response: “Christian Scott, a lot of hip hop, Kendrick Lamar, Clifford Brown, and the Isley Brothers.”
When asked about what music he likes to play, Hill said “I like bebop and hard-bop, but nowadays there are so many aspects of what make up jazz ... the style I like is a melting pot.”
The term “melting pot” really defines what listeners can expect to hear when Hill plays. His melodies are certainly of the hard-bop vein — catchy tunes played with accuracy and vigor, but the accompaniment is varied.
Surely, we’ll hear Art Blakey-style swing, but if his 2016 recording, This is What We Play, is an indication of the Blacktet’s repertoire, we will also be grooving to lithe hip-hop beats accompanying jazz standards like Minority Maiden Voyage, Straight No Chaser, and Charlie Chaplin’s Smile.
In a 2017 interview with NextBop, Hill said “I also believe in what we’d call the laws of the universe — one of those being that you get back what you put out; if you spread negativity and hate, the universe will respond to you in that manner. If you develop and spread real positivity and love, that’s what you receive back. It’s as simple as that for me.”
This advice is manifest in the music he creates. Listening to Hill’s music, one can feel that the intention is to uplift listeners, to “spread real positivity and love.”