The great marvel of Chicago jazz remains its young people – emerging artists who keep redefining and re-energizing the music, notwithstanding the challenges involved (economic and otherwise).
One of the most promising of them opened a key engagement of his still-nascent career Thursday night at the Jazz Showcase, where 26-year-old trumpeter Marquis Hill led his Blacktet in an evening devoted mostly to original scores.
Though players of Hill's generation don't typically get to front a band for a four-night run at Chicago's most prominent jazz room – particularly during the prime fall season – it's not difficult to understand why Hill got the nod. For starters, he was celebrating the release of his third album as leader, "The Poet," which comes shortly after Hill took first prize, and $10,000, in the Carmine Caruso International Jazz Trumpet Solo Competition. That Hill also recently joined the music faculty at the University of Illinois at Chicago only enhances his resume.
Most impressive of all, however, was the way Hill sounded on his horn and the caliber of performances he inspired from his band. For while Hill was playing, one didn't really care whether he was 26 or 66: This consistently lyrical music helped explain why the new album is titled "The Poet."
Even in his fastest, most bravura passages, Hill produced a silvery, supple tone that underscored his central purpose: to make music rather than noise. In reflective pieces, he conveyed a degree of understatement and reserve one rarely encounters in players of his vintage.
After a somewhat perfunctory, get-warmed-up opener, Hill and friends found their voices in his "B-Tune," from "The Poet." The trumpeter's sleek, blues-tinged lines were answered with comparable elegance from alto saxophonist Christopher McBride, Hill's closest musical collaborator. To hear them "trading fours," as jazz musicians call the process of exchanging solo riffs, was to listen in on a stylish, intimate, quick-moving conversation between two promising talents.
The pervasively melodic quality of Hill's playing was especially apparent in his "Return of the Student," also from "The Poet." No matter how formidable Hill's fortissimos became, there was no mistaking the warmth of his sound; no matter how quickly he articulated running notes, there was no missing the roundness of his sound.
As composer, Hill crafts tunes that make puckish left turns, the melodies wandering to unexpected places, the chords progressions often heading in the opposite direction of where one might have guessed. All of this unfolds within a mainstream musical vocabulary, but a sophisticated one.
And Hill certainly knows how to pen a ballad. The memorable melodic contours of "I Remember Summer," which he hasn't yet recorded, cries out for lyrics. Hill wrote the piece for a close friend, singer Milton Suggs, and it probably won't be long before Suggs is crooning it.
Hill's "Giovanna" was created in honor of his girlfriend, he told the audience, its muted tones and ultra-slow tempo establishing a softly romantic mood. But here Hill and the band essentially stated the theme without really developing it – they clearly have a lot more they can say in this valentine.
Throughout, Hill enjoyed deeply engaged support from his peers, with nimble work on vibraphone from Justin Thomas, relentless rhythmic drive from bassist Joshua Ramos and some of the most evocative, subtle, tautly controlled playing we've heard from drummer Makaya McCraven.
All of these musicians attest to the power of youth in jazz and, therefore, to its encouraging future.
When: 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday
Where: Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.
Admission: $20-$35; $15 students; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com