Prior to winning the Thelonious Monk Institute's International Jazz Competition in 2014, trumpeter Marquis Hill was already a formidable presence on the Chicago jazz scene. An adroit improviser and educator, Hill had taken home several accolades, including his first place win in the 2013 Carmine Caruso International Jazz Trumpet Solo Competition. His Monk Institute performance merely cemented the notion that Hill was a jazz artist who'd arrived. As part of his prize for winning the Monk contest, he earned a record deal with the Concord label, and 2016's The Way We Play is the result. While the album is certainly a showcase for Hill's fluid talents as an improvisor, it also works to showcase his skills as a bandleader. As with his 2014 effort, Modern Flows EP, Vol. 1, The Way We Play finds Hill leading his Blacktet, a group of longtime collaborators including saxophonist Christopher McBride, vibraphonist Justin Thomas, drummer Makaya McCraven, and bassist Joshua Ramos. Thoughtfully organic and rife with a groove-oriented, hip-hop-informed style, the Blacktet is at once contemporary and steeped in modern jazz tradition. Essentially, Hill balances both of these strengths on The Way We Play, largely touching upon songs from the jazz canon re-arranged in his own fluid, soulfully articulated style. As if to playfully underline his Chicago spirit, Hill also re-creates the Chicago Bulls game-opening theme replete with vocalist Meagan McNeal introducing his band. He then moves through a set of well-curated covers including a sophisticated version of "My Foolish Heart," featuring vocalist Christie Dashiell and a kinetic take on Horace Silver's "Moon Rays," in which McCraven plays a frenzied drum style reminiscent of electronic drum and bass beats. Hill is a dynamic performer whose trumpet can be hushed and breathy one minute, and boldly clarion the next. Aesthetically, while he fits into the Freddie Hubbard mold with flashes of Wynton Marsalis and Clifford Brown, he's also a deeply rooted trumpeter with an array of influences, demonstrated here by his Afro-Cuban take on Donald Byrd's "Fly Little Bird Fly" and his choice to tackle Carmell Jones' knotty "Beep Durple." His technique can dazzle, as evidenced by his lithe squealing-at-the-clouds solo on Thelonious Monk's "Straight, No Chaser." However, he's also a canny romantic whose supple, burnished tone can pull you deeper into a melody as he does on his largely rubato take on the ballad "Polkadots and Moonbeams." Elsewhere, he delivers a languid take on fellow Chicagoan Herbie Hancock's "Maiden Voyage," and even makes room for incisive social commentary via a spoken word poem from writer Harold Green III on "The Way We Play/Minority." Ultimately, The Way We Play illustrates Hill's award-winning sound, a sound that should appeal broadly to listeners hungry for a stylish, subtly forward-thinking approach to post-bop jazz, and to those who simply enjoy a warmly delivered standard.
AllMusic Review by Matt Collar