The Poet is rather a misnomer. There’s poetry on the album, but only on the very short opening and closing tracks. Calling it The Composer might have been more on point, since it’s really the superlative tunes of Chicago trumpeter-bandleader Marquis Hill that are his third disc’s lifeblood.
So much so, in fact, that while Hill employs his seven-piece Blacktet on The Poet, he allots them little room for improvisation. The longest of the 15 tracks, “The Color of Fear” and “Vella,” both clock in at around six minutes; the latter has the album’s longest (and best) solo, a clear-toned volley by Hill that lasts all of a minute and a half. (Hill, vibraphonist Justin Thomas and pianist Josh Moshier also get brief tracks, listed as “interludes,” to improvise without accompaniment.) These and other excellent solos—Thomas plays a beautiful thematic one on “Nouvelle Orleans,” and alto saxophonist Christopher McBride stuns with a low-register romance on “Again Never”—but they are not the point. As if to underscore this, one track, “The Indicator,” fills its entire middle section with maddeningly repetitive vamps.
But what treasures await in the compositions themselves. Hill excels at two techniques: piecing catchy themes together into a cohesive statement and using phrases from those melodies to punctuate the solo sections. The most effective example is in the title track: The horns interject thematic licks into the brief solos by Moshier and bassist Joshua Ramos; then, the final third of the track changes direction entirely, from a gymnastic 6/8 to a slow, haunting 4/4. The Poet shows Hill to be a formidable talent.