In and around the formidable jazz studies program at Michigan State University is a plethora of jazz talent devoted to instrumental and compositional excellence. Most of this talent is young, benefiting from a wide array of world-class instructors that includes program director Rodney Whitaker
and veteran guitarist Randy Napoleon
, among other notables. Within this labyrinth of jazz wisdom in the Detroit / Lansing metroplex is composer Gregg Hill
, a former truck driver and tech entrepreneur whose performing ambitions were superseded by his ability to create soaring melodies and dense harmonies in an identifiable and original style.
Of course, you cannot appreciate the beauty of a giant cedar tree unless you behold it where it makes its mighty stand in the forest. Hill set out for his music to be heard, partnering with his Michigan brethren on a series of recordings at a sprinter's pace, releasing eleven albums on the Origin / OA2 and Cold Plunge labels. With bassist Whitaker at the helm, the onslaught began with Common Ground
(Origin, 2019), and continues with Napoleon's third crack at Hill's dynamic compositions, The Door is Open
(OA2, 2024). In strolling through all eleven releases, the constants become evident in the form of Hill's genius for dynamically arched pieces that accommodate within their framework, a variety of instrumental and vocal voices and circumstances.
Napoleon, for his part, is a formidable player heavily steeped in the jazz tradition. His style is an open book of jazz guitar motifs spoken in bebop language but bearing the marks of modernism. His ability to convey musical emotion with rapid-fire runs or distinct, wide-open spaces enables his playing to read and react freely, in and out of improvised or notated work. His technique is nearly flawless, projecting a very clean and bold sound. The edges are soft, but the attack can be sharp and aggressive.
For this session, he is paired melodically on the front line with vocalist Aubrey Johnson
, who performs with and without lyrics. Whitaker and Lucas LaFave
share bass duties, with Grand Rapids-born veteran Quincy Davis
on drums. The horn section is also centered around Detroit, with veteran tenor saxophonist Walter Blanding
and trumpeter Anthony Stanco
. Trombonist Andrew Kim
completes the Lansing horn trifecta. Pianist Rick Roe
is the orchestral instrument in the mix. While he seems to fly under the radar of the jazz public, Roe is a true master, and his presence allows listeners to get to know him a bit.
In essence, it is all about community with Hill, who chooses performers with whom he has a personal connection, musicians who understand the value of his work and will put their all into it when called on. This pervades all of Hill's associations on record, including Whitaker, Napoleon and Michael Dease
. The composer and the musicians seem to speak with one voice.
The opener, "April Song," finds Napoleon in an intimate space with pianist Roe, before joining in the first verse of the melody with Johnson. It is a setup that follows course throughout the album. There are melancholic references to the writing style of pre-bop and show composers such as Johnny Green, with lush harmony and a melody that hits and takes residence for a while in the ears of the listener. Hill's musical maturity comes into play, offering a melody that stands on its own two feet, as opposed to the trend among younger modern composers who tend to derive melody from harmony and rhythmic aspects of the whole sound. Napoleon and Johnson's solos are melody-based, distinct and brilliantly performed, while Roe rises above the melody and reveals the beauty that lies between them. His solo combined with the cymbal work of Davis is truly orchestral in every sense. Like the Napoleon / Johnson connection, it becomes a recurring theme throughout the recording.
"Spa-Taneity" is a common thread of Hill's entire legacy, with his melodies representing a central theme from which all else emerges. The soloing swings hard, with Johnson offering her finest work, demonstrating her soaring, broad range and precision notation. LaFave's swinging, meter-changing work fits well with the subtleties of Davis and Roe's sparse harmonic and rhythmic framework.
The title track adds dynamic color when Hill's brief melodic entrance is blown up by the burning solo of Blanding. His sound can be warm and round and scorchingly harsh within the context of one solo, as it is here. Napoleon takes his energy and delivers a solo that is both melodic and abstract. He leaves it for LaFave, exiting in a barrage of octave runs.
Until she sings lyrics on "The Lost Tune," towards the end of the album's playlist, Johnson performs as a front-line instrument, as would a horn player. Her sound is soft, technically brilliant and performed with perfect pitch. For many of these tunes, a deeper connection with the blues might be preferred. That is a matter of one's personal view of the music. Hill's tunes are very visual, and the human voice is the most adept carrier of musical vision by nature. Johnson's work in that context is brilliant.
That leads us to one final question for Hill. What's next? His response should be dynamic and swift.
The Lost Tune; The Door is Open; Escape to Cat Island; Motel Blues; Spa-Teneity; April Song; The Last Pop Tune;
Skyline; Triple Play.