Marquis Hill: Pushing Forward


“I’ve always been into the zodiac and the truth that’s within it, but during this pandemic, we all had to time and space to do that,” Hill said.

(Photo: Chollette)

Trumpeter Marquis Hill speaks in quietly determined tones. Through a Zoom 
conversation from his college office in Boston, he enthusiastically detailed 
his musical concepts, teaching philosophy, personal history and a host of 
other topics without raising his voice.

Not that he lacks enthusiasm. Hill’s conversational personality reflects his performance style where his subtle strength eschews unnecessary leaps and descents. These qualities shape his recently released live album, New Gospel Revisited (Edition Records). His sense of contemplation also may be a big part of what has kept him even-keeled throughout seven momentous years.

The world noticed when Hill, at 27, won the Thelonious Monk International Trumpet Competition in 2014. His hometown of Chicago knew about his inventiveness and technique long before that moment. After that, Hill was thrust onto the global stage. He relocated to New York and has since recorded a diverse range of projects, served as a valued sideman, participated or led different international tours and still makes regular creative immersions back to the Midwest. All the while, he also teaches at Berklee College of Music. While the pandemic has caused innumerable worldwide pauses and hardships, the slowdown has made Hill more introspective but no less energized.

“Time kind of pushed us all in the space of reflecting on what’s important,” Hill said a few minutes after teaching an advanced improvisation class. “Especially in 2020 when things shut down, I had nothing but time and space. Gigs and festivals are starting to come back, but the world is still in the process of reflecting on what’s really important.”

For Hill, that sense of self-reflection became intensive just before the pandemic hit, which New Gospel Revisited documents. That was when he returned to Chicago, in December 2019, for a two-night stand at Constellation. His set list consisted of songs that he recorded for his debut album, New Gospel, eight years earlier. Along with reinterpreting those pieces, Hill led a dynamic sextet that included old friends and new colleagues. The energy of playing and recording in this musician-owned venue also sounded palpable and reminded Hill of a time when he could try out ideas at such encouraging spaces as the city’s Velvet Lounge.

“A part of me subconsciously always realized I was going to revisit this set of music,” Hill said. “This is one of my favorite sets of music, and it’s special to me because it was my very first time sitting down at the piano and saying, ‘I’ve never written music before, I’m going to write a set of music for a project.’ My connection with that music from 10 years ago has not changed. It still has that special place in my heart, but I wanted to record it at a higher quality, put this dream team of a band together and really stretch and expand this music.”

That team has given the music an overall more spacious feeling while also highlighting different instrumental textures from the first time around. A sense of tension that runs through the performance does not contradict its feeling of warmth. The group brings together two other former Chicagoans — vibraphonist Joel Ross and bassist Harish Raghavan — along with tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III, pianist James Francies and drummer Kendrick Scott. While Hill and Ross have worked with each other for years, the trumpeter had a firm sense of the specific qualities that every musician brought to the ensemble and these particular compositions. He also gave them space to build on those qualities as each musician took the lead on different tracks.

“On the original New Gospel, the compositions are fairly simple even though they have shape and movement,” Hill said. “To expand and grow on this music, I needed musicians who can take a simple melody, see past that melody and play things that aren’t necessarily on the page. Kendrick was one of the first drummers who came to mind. You listen to Kendrick and you hear how younger drummers are coming out of Kendrick. He writes his own music so when he’s playing, it sounds very compositional.

“Typically, on a bandstand, the bass player plays in the pocket and holds everything together. But I’m a fan of a bass player who pushes the band in different directions, who has the courage to do that, and Harish is one of those players. With Joel, I’ve always been a fan of that sound, the dreaminess and openness. James is just another one of those voices who has his own shape, own direction, you can hear that he’s coming from a history of the music but also pushing things in his direction. Walter has that dark, warm, fluffy sound that I’m a huge fan of, and we blend well together. He’s pushing the music forward with his composition and language, but you hear the connection to Sonny Rollins and the connection to this music.”

New Gospel Revisited also highlights Hill’s distinctive tone on ballads, which has become more pronounced with time. His new inflections on this album derive, in part, from his intuitive dialogue with Smith and how he responds to the saxophonist’s qualities he described. But the muted lyricism in Hill’s solos remain rooted in what he learned from a host of musician teachers while growing up on Chicago’s South Side. That education includes his record collecting.

“I’ve always had the concept of when I play I want to sound like I’m singing,” Hill said. “Back in high school, I had mentors who were telling me, ‘Sing through your instrument.’ So I’ve always had that concept. When I’m playing a ballad, today and back then, I’ve had that concept of trying to sing, but the older I’ve got, the more records I’ve checked out, just life, my concept has just deepened. One of the first trumpet sounds I fell in love with was Lee Morgan on the record Candy, track two, ‘Since I Fell For You,’ a beautiful ballad. One of the very first jazz songs I heard and that stuck with me: the round, fluffy, airy vocalist type quality on that record and that’s just the record I naturally hear myself and hear the trumpet.”

While Hill did experience life in the church and its music while growing up, the album’s title track does not directly and exclusively refer to that institution’s sound. Rather, it connects to his time in graduate school while working on his master’s degree in jazz pedagogy at DePaul University, when he started studying the roots to how his cultural interests connected. That research took him to the legacy of New Orleans, primarily Congo Square.

“That groove was just a New Orleans accent on the four, I wanted to compose a tune paying attention to that groove,” Hill said. “That groove set the pace to push the music forward.”

Groove in all of its contemporary aspects runs throughout other albums that Hill released during the past few years, particularly Soul Sign from 2020 and Love Tape from 2019 (both on Black Unlimited Music Group). These connect to his youth spent absorbing R&B and hip-hop with his friends while Hill was also sitting in at Chicago’s jazz clubs. Nowadays, he absorbs similar energies from his current Harlem neighborhood. Along with blending ideas from different idioms, Hill also released vocal and instrumental versions of both albums.

“It came natural to write music that incorporates all these different genres: jazz, hip-hop, soul,” Hill said. “When you really get deep into the history of the music and erase the genre boundaries, you realize it truly is all coming from the same place. So being born in the ’80s, falling in love with jazz early but still hanging with friends listening to hip-hop and R&B, it is easy for me to just create. The older I get and more I studied, the more it confirmed it’s truly coming from the same place. Music will have all of those influences, so I naturally hear the music, and compose the music, that way.”

Hill linked his studies with an inward perspective for Soul Sign. Both versions of the album are his musical interpretation of the zodiac with input from spoken word artists and astrologers. Some inspiration came from Mary Lou Williams’ Zodiac Suite, as well as from Soul Zodiac, an album that Cannonball Adderley produced and presented that showcased his brother Nat Adderley. But Hill’s albums also emerged from looking at his own life as the pandemic started shutting everything down.

“I’ve always been into the zodiac and the truth that’s within it, but during this pandemic, we all had to time and space to do that,” Hill said. “So I dove really deep into it, and there’s so much truth in it. I started to see how much of it is represented in my life. It’s undeniable, the truth. I was just inspired by what I was learning. I also went back to one of my first tapes, Mediation Tape [from 2017], where there’s one that’s instrumental and one with voices. With Soul Sign, the messages that astrologers are spinning are so deep with so much detail but the beats are so interesting, I had to release an instrumental to absorb the music without the text. So there are two versions, and the challenge of that was I wanted each sign to sound like the energy of the zodiac. I wanted to give listeners the chance to check out both.”

Throughout these recordings, Hill added that he also looks for the same qualities of individualism whether he’s working with spoken word artists or musicians. As he teaches advanced improvisation classes, these are the sorts of lessons that he imparts.

“How can I help you pull out what you have to offer — your voice?” Hill said he asks his students. “A lot of lessons and exercises are to help students find their thing. And also just the seriousness. With a lot of my mentors, it was just sitting and watching how serious they are about their craft. This music is a high art and you have to bring your very best to represent this music.”

Alongside performing, recording and teaching, Hill continues actively working as a sideman, including on former Chicagoan saxophonist Caroline Davis’ Portals, Volume 1: Mourning (Sunnyside). His tours as part of bassist Marcus Miller’s band put him in a direct line with a colleague of Miles Davis, an experience he found invaluable. Hill also contributed to pianist Greg Spero’s new The Chicago Experiment (Ropeadope). The trumpeter’s versatility and sense of space fits in with the album’s constantly shifting idiomatic turns and his exploratory lead on “For Too” quietly echoes those free-jazz mentors at the Velvet Lounge. Spero said this all makes him the ideal team player.

“Marquis’ focus on color and harmony is so flexible,” Spero said. “Marquis stands out because his melodic sense is almost beyond harmony. He can take melody and pull harmony to his will, which is what he exemplified on that track and improvisation in that context.”

In the coming year, Hill intends to continue with such collaborations along with creating new music of his own. Possibly, his future work will connect with The Philosophy & Opinions of Marcus Garvey, a book he was re-reading at the time of this conversation. He also imparted his own philosophy on how to endure the current tribulations we are facing.

“Just keep pushing forward, keep staying optimistic and focus in on the positive things in life: our loved ones, our families, the things that we have going on in our life that bring us joy,” Hill said. “Focus on that, take care of our health and just keep pushing forward. It’s a crazy, scary time but we all have control of our own lives, our own destiny, so take care of your spirit, take care of your mind and push forward. That’s what we have to do.” DB

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