This Week on Jazz Spectrum: The Music of Gregg Hill

By Fritz Byers

Last night, a friend and I saw the trumpeter Dave Douglas perform with the Bowling Green State University Lab Band. Mid-way through, the bassist Jeff Halsey, a BGSU emeritus who deserves that honorific and many more for his lifelong, large-spirited commitment to the music, led the band through Bob Brookmeyer’s intricate, charming composition, “Ding Dong Ding.”  The performance nodded to both the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, a centerpiece of New York Jazz for decades that Bob served as musical director of for many years, and to Bob’s propensities for polytonality and Third Stream writing techniques. 

But the show was mostly a showcase for Dave’s compositions. He played lead trumpet on his tunes’ theme statements and on a small handful of riveting solos. His precise, powerful tone early on established an elevated level of musicianship for the occasion. But his main presence during the night was as conductor, bringing his famously intense and encouraging manner to the task of leading the Lab Band. With lithe body movements and hand gestures ranging from emphatic to delicate, Dave gracefully led the band to places in the compositions they might not otherwise have found. The Lab Band, which teems with precocious and promising talent, was more than up to the task. I would imagine it was a thrilling night for the Band; it was an immensely satisfying one for the audience. Dave was correct to graciously observe at the close of the show that the music is in good hands.

On the way home, my friend and I talked about the role of compositions, and the often-separate role of the arranger, in creating the spontaneous marvels of jazz. We had a lot of fun trading fours on the subject, and the conversation led us somewhere, although not to a conclusion. I have a lot more thinking and listening to do before I would be remotely comfortable trying to write up even a few tentative conclusions on this crucial question.

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This morning I’m thinking about the conversation and about compositions because this week on Jazz Spectrum the focus is on the music of Gregg Hill. I don’t know Gregg, but I’ve learned enough about his music over the last decade or so to happily invite it into the spotlight. Gregg has spent a lifetime in music since growing up in central Michigan in a music-drenched household. And in recent years, an expanding set of acclaimed musicians have taken turns devoting entire albums to his compositions. It’s time to take notice.

I first encountered Gregg’s work on paper with the publication in 2015 of Outrospectives, a book of his compositions. Glancing through the book and reading about the music brought a richer context to his name, which I’d heard here and there. Then, in 2019, the bassist Rodney Whitaker released Common Ground: The Music of Gregg Hill, and that was more than enough. The date features a remarkable band: in addition to the leader on bass, the trumpeter Terrell Stafford, the saxophonist Tim Warfield, the pianist Bruce Barth, and the drummer Dana Hall – all names thoroughly familiar with regular Jazz Spectrum listeners. To select just one, Bruce Barth has been a favorite since the early 1980s, when he was turning heads and opening ears as a student at the New England Conservatory of Music. 

Those musicians playing Gregg’s tunes – of course it’s a terrific release. At the time, Rodney, maybe with the slightest bit of his tongue in cheek, described the music as “modern bebop and 21st Century soul jazz.” Well, sure. And plenty more. You heard the recording many times that year on the show, and I’m pretty sure it made the year-end list of best releases. If not, that was my oversight. At the end of the first set this week, you’ll hear “Aftershock” from the recording, a terrific composition that shows Gregg’s skill at melding simple melodies with complex, occasionally dissonant harmonies, and then giving the band plenty of room to explore the implied relationships. 

Since Common Ground, Rodney has put out two more recordings dedicated to Gregg’s music: Outrospection, recorded in 2020, and Oasis, recorded the following year. This week’s show opens with three tracks from the former recording, which features Xavier Davis on piano and, again, the stalwart drummer Dana Hall. On scattered tracks, the band is augmented by the trumpeter Etienne Charles, the trombonist Michael Dease, and the guitarist Randy Napoleon. 

There must be something contagious about all of this, because both Michael Dease and Randy Napoleon have also put out recordings on the Origin label that showcase Gregg’s compositions. Rodney Whitaker is everywhere on these recordings, and the bands are filled out with fine musicians.

The second set of this week’s show begins with two tracks from The Other Shoe: The Music of Gregg, on which Michael, a widely admired trombonist with a battery of great recordings to his name, presents ten of Gregg’s compositions, deploying the pianist Geoffrey Keezer on several of them to great effect. I am particularly taken by the clarinetist Virginia MacDonald, whom I’d not previously encountered – you’ll hear her throughout. 

And the third set this week opens with two cuts from Randy’s release, The Door is Open: The Music of Gregg Hill, recorded last summer with the pianist Rick Roe and the drummer Quincy Davis. Throughout the date, which presents nine of Gregg’s works, Aubrey Johnson uses her wordless vocals as an instrument to add color and angled harmonies that to my ears get very close to the center of Gregg’s musical intentions. 

The Music of Gregg Hill. It’s there for you in these recordings, and on this week’s Jazz Spectrum. He is a composer well worth our sustained attention.

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