Trumpeter Marquis Hill Has a Message


Marquis Hill benefited from time spent at the Velvet Lounge, a jazz room on the South Side of Chicago run by saxophonist Fred Anderson (1929–2010).

(Photo: Todd Rosenberg)

Sipping tea in the Harlem hangout Common Good, Marquis Hill wore a serene smile. The expression was hardly one unfamiliar to the trumpeter’s friends and colleagues, who know him as the personification of the easygoing guy—on and off the bandstand.

But the smile was more serene than usual: He just had come off a satisfying series of North American concerts at which his quintet, the Blacktet, captivated audiences with a cache of new tunes, and was headed for Europe, where he would extend the run in 10 countries through November.

The new music, like his previous efforts, is calibrated with cool precision and delivered with calculated understatement, his trumpet playing filled with the mellifluous tones, cascading lines and outpourings of lyrical invention that have been stirring souls throughout the jazz world.

The music also stirs the pot, layered as it is with anxious hip-hop grooves and unsettling spoken-word narratives that reflect the conditions Hill saw growing up—and, to a degree, still sees today—on the South Side of Chicago.

“You’ve got to have a message,” Hill, 31, declared. “You’ve got to have meaning.”

Meaning, in fact, marks all of Hill’s oeuvre—not least his new album, Modern Flows Vol. 2 (Black Unlimited Music Group). It combines musical prowess and cultural provocation in a synthesis of art and activism rare among musicians of any generation, according to bassist and bandleader Marcus Miller, with whom Hill has played for three years.

“He plays flawlessly, but is really committed,” said Miller, who was introduced to Hill at the 2014 Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz International Trumpet Competition, which Hill won. “These days, people want to know you’re about something, and you can tell what he’s about.”

What he is about clearly is expressed in the pieces with some lyric content—nearly half of the new album’s 15 tracks—from the opener, “Modern Flows II Intro,” on which Brandon Alexander Williams invokes a series of references to black culture, to the closer, “Legend Outro III,” on which rapper Keith “King Legend” Winford does the same, with an overlay of appeal to the instinct for self-reliance.

The first line of Winford’s outro reads: “I still pray to god but I also pray to myself for all the things he didn’t fix I had to fix em myself.”

“That line really spoke to me,” Hill said, recalling the work his mother, a single parent, put into raising him. “To me, it sums up a lot. There’s nothing really holding us back but ourselves.”

In enlisting Winford, Hill was returning to a friend he met when the two were undergraduates at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, where Hill earned a bachelor’s degree in music education in 2009. They began collaborating on Hill’s earlier albums, The Poet and Modern Flows Vol. 1, for which Winford also wrote outros.

“I love the way he thinks, his flow, his cadence,” Hill said. “I gave him the music, told him the concept of the record in general, told him this was going to be the closing track, and to sum up his perception of the project and this music. That’s what he ran with.”

Given creative control over the words, Winford waited a couple of weeks before writing. “I wanted to see what I could do to bring my spin,” he said. “I had a lot of stuff on my mind.” Having gathered his thoughts, he wrote the rapid-fire text and brought it to the studio, where, after four or five false starts, he and Hill produced a two-and-a-half-minute take. “It happened organically. We knew what we were trying to accomplish.”

Part of what Hill said he wanted to accomplish with the album was to avoid male-centrism. “I was sitting at home one night writing music at the keyboard, thinking how we’re taking history from a man’s perspective and wondering what it would look like from a woman’s perspective. I thought, ‘It would be great to hear a woman’s voice in this day and age.’”

To that end, he recruited Chicago poet M’Reld Green, who contributed two segments united loosely by the theme of cultural marginalization. “Prayer For The People” deals with subjects like gentrification (“The history is being erased and being replaced/ With Starbucks”), while “Herstory” addresses attempts to render African American women invisible (“Her story went away with the cameras/ No more reporters to report her”).

“Marquis wanted it to be more than just slam poetry,” Green said. “He wanted it to be more narration, like a story.”

Although Hill composed the music before any lyrics were written, he viewed the instrumentalists in a sense as supporting players. “I used the ensemble to lay the platform for the spoken-word to get across,” he explained.

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