On The Way We Play, Hill fronts his regular ensemble of four years, the Blacktet, which consists of alto saxophonist Christopher McBride, vibraphonist Justin Thomas, drummer Makaya McCraven, and bassist Joshua Ramos. It’s a smart tactic because it plays to the strengths of Hill as a bandleader and affords the music a vivacious group accord that often comes from years of playing together. Hill, however, flips the scripts on the new disc. Instead of offering entirely original material as he did on his last three discs, he revisits a handful of jazz standards. "I want to pay homage to some of my favorite jazz standards and American songbook classics,” Hill says. "These are some of the songs that I came up playing in various jam sessions; these songs really taught me how to play jazz.”
The Way We Play is hardly a color-by-numbers jazz standards album. As Hill has done on his previous discs, he revitalizes the material by placing heavier emphasis on the groove, which enables the compositions to resonate more to a 21st-century jazz audience – hence the disc’s witty title. "I really want to make it very clear that this is the sound of my band, which is uniquely Chicago. I wanted to put everything on the table – this is the way that we play,” Hill explains.
The Chicago Tribune asserts that the spirit of Chicago is deeply integral to his music by stating, "…his music crystallizes the hard-hitting, hard-swinging spirit of Chicago jazz.” Indeed, Chi-town references burst forward at the very beginning with "Welcome / ‘Bulls Theme’,” on which guest vocalist Meagan McNeal introduces the band with the same hypnotic theme used by the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s when Michael Jordan played with the team.
From there, Hill launches into an entrancing take on a Gigi Gryce’s 1950s minor-blues classic with the two-part mashup "The Way We Play / Minority.” The ensemble accentuates Gryce’s original opening bass line groove before Hill and McBride articulate the zigzagging melodic figure in unison. The rhythm soon breaks into a quicksilver swing forward motion that sweeps Hill’s authoritative improvisation. The inventive makeover also features spoken-word artist Harold Green III delivering lyrical prose that aptly describes the Chicago sound.
"Prelude,” a dulcet trumpet solo, gives way to the mesmerizing rendition of Horace Silver’s late-1950s composition "Moon Rays” with which McCraven and Ramos underpin with a skittering, almost drum-n-bass flow. "I learned that tune when I was a sophomore in high school in an after-school program called the Merit School of Music,” Hill recalls. "The melody is so beautiful and so singable.”
The mood simmers down for Hill’s sensual take on Victor Young and Ned Washington’s classic ballad "My Foolish Heart.” In addition to the subtle, R&B rhythmic flourishes lurking underneath, Hill’s makeover also stars Christie Dashiell, who brings a soothing, sunny verve to the fore as Hill’s muted trumpet interjects melodic asides.
Amorous overtones continue with a stunning reading of Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke’s "Polka Dots and Moonbeams” of which Hill almost plays entirely solo on flugelhorn, which allows listeners to full luxuriate inside his velvety tone and graceful improvisation.
With the help of percussionist Juan Pastor, the tempo picks back up with an Afro-Cuban take on Donald Byrd’s mid-1960s burner "Fly Little Bird Fly,” another tune highlighted by Green’s uplifting prose. This tune is especially personal for Hill because Byrd is one of his biggest and earliest jazz influences. "When I was in high school, he was the cat that I wanted to sound like,” Hill remembers. "When I was in high school, I was on a mission to find every record that Donald Byrd was on.”
The Chicago connection between Hill and the material becomes even more pronounced with the delightful cover of "Maiden Voyage,” a mid-1960s standard, written by fellow Windy City-native Herbie Hancock. On Hill’s version, he slowed the tempo and dropped the key to G-flat to give the evocative composition darker hues.
After bursting through a flinty exploration through the Thelonious Monk mid-1960s staple "Straight No Chaser,” Hill digs deep into the post-bop canon and unearths Carmell Jones’ rare 1965 tune, "Beep Durple,” on which the frontline horns deftly tackle the tricky melody atop a fractured yet forward motion rhythmic bed. The ebullient rendition also features trombonist and fellow-Chicagoan Vincent Gardner of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.
Peruvian rhythms burst forth from Pastor’s cajón drumming on "Juan’s Interlude,” before the disc concludes with an Afro-Latin 7/4 version of Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 signature tune "Smile.” Featuring just trumpet, bass and cajón, Hill’s zesty rendition makes a fitting conclusion for The Way We Play, a fetching refurbishing of old favorites with a decidedly 21st-century twist.