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The Roy Hargrove Factor

By Mark Anthony Neal | @NewBlackMan | with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Friday, November 16, 2018.

If the brothers Marsalis were the poster boys for a re-emergence of jazz in the mainstream thirty years ago, trumpeter Roy Hargrove was the standard bearer for the flank of “Young Lions” that blew open the door that Wynton and Branford found. Hargrove, who passed away recently at age 49, was the clear star of a group of musicians that included bassist Christian McBride, pianist Benny Green, guitarist Mark Whitfield, fellow trumpeter Marlon Jordan, saxophonist Antonio Hart and Marc Anthony Cary.  Ever the restless spirit, Hargrove found fellow travelers at the other end of the radio dial, among a loose collective of musicians straddling the worlds of hip-hop, R&B and Jazz, including Erykah Badu and D’Angelo. In a career the began when he was 17, Hargrove recorded close to twenty albums as a leader, and earned two Grammy Awards.

"Music has always been at the center of my life," Hargrove told the Los Angeles Times in a 1994 profile. Like many of the post-Soul generation, Hargrove was immersed in the sounds of top-Pop 40, telling Bill Kohlhaase that he listened to “everything there was to be heard on the radio: hip-hop, reggae, basically every style that I could relate to, that I liked, that I could feel. It wasn't until I was 15 that I began to hear about people like Clifford Brown, Fats Navarro, Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard."

The Dallas raised Hargrove recalled in an interview with Dr. Billy Taylor that he was introduced to improvisation as a 4th grader by a grade school music teacher. By the time he was in arts school as a teenager, there was a buzz about Hargrove.  It was, in part, that buzz that got Hargrove an invitation to sit in with Wynton Marsalis – arguably Jazz brightest's star  at the time, and only eight years Hargrove’s senior. Marsalis is reported to have remarked, "Man, I heard this little kid today that's gonna be a bitch. No, that's wrong, that kid's a bitch today."  

Hargrove was already deep in the archive of his instrument, telling New York Times critic Jon Pareles, "I haven't really been the same since I heard Clifford Brown," Mr. Hargrove said. "I found it hard to believe a trumpet player like that, because he had covered so much of the horn technically, but the sound was so warm and not brassy. Then the next trumpet player I heard was Freddie Hubbard, and that really turned my head around." Hargrove spent a year at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, but by 1990 was living in New York City, signed to RCA/Novus, where he released three studio albums Diamond in the Rough (1990),Public Eye (1991), The Vibe (1992), and the live Of Kindred Spirits (1993), before making the move to Verve in 1994 with With the Tenors of Our Time, which surrounded Hargrove with some titans of the instrument  including legends like Joe Henderson, Stanley Turrentine, and Johnny Griffin, and his contemporaries Branford Marsalis and Joshua Redmond.


Photo: Govert Driessen

There is a warmness that you hear on those early Hargrove albums, like his  treatment of James Williams’ classic “Alter Ego” or “Of Kindred Souls.” But what you also heard in Hargrove’s sound, on tracks like his fire and brimstone cover of Miles Davis’ “Milestones” and “Homelife Revisited” is a swagger, befitting a young musician who likely heard Run-DMC’s “Rock Box” or Eric B and Rakim’s “Check Out My Melody” at house parties in Dallas. As David M. Yaffe wrote in his Village Voice profile of Hargrove during a stint at the Village Vanguard in 1996,  “what really distinguishes Roy from earlier trumpeters is his understanding of funk: Originals like ‘Roy Allan’ written for his father-reveal a musical palette not only formed by Dizzy, Fats, and Clifford, but by Parliament, the Ohio Players, and Stevie Wonder. Such distinctions between Roy and his influences are crucial.”

Hargrove’s forays into R&B and Hip-Hop would have to wait; his detour was in the arena of Latin Jazz, where his 1997 albumHabana would earn him his first Grammy in the category of Best Latin Jazz Performance (1998). Hargrove would win a second Grammy five years later for a live album, co-led with Herbie Hancock and Michael Brecker.  Moment to Moment (2000), an album of ballads with strings, highlighted Hargrove’s aesthetic range and diverse taste.

But it was Hargrove’s ability to channel the cross-genre sensibilities of fellow trumpeters Quincy Jones, Freddie Hubbard and Donald Byrd that earned his new audiences at the beginning of the new century. Hargrove’s contributions on Erykah Badu’sMama’s Gun, D’Angelo’s Voodoo, and Common’s Like Water for Chocolate – all released in 2000 – are nuanced, but they had a major impact on the musicality of all three projects. It was in this period Hargrove also contributed, along with the Soulquarian collective and Nile Rodgers, to the Red, Hot & Riot tribute to Fela Kuti.  

As Hargrove told the Daily News in 2003, "People been blasting me in the ear for the longest...They were saying, 'You're the only cat who could do it right.' " Doing it right meant the RH Factor, Hargroves’  jazz-funk collective, which produced two albums and an EP between 2003-2006. Standouts on those RH Factor albums are D’Angelo’s mournful cover of Funkadelic’s “I’ll Stay” and “Kwah/Home”, which featured a then relatively unknown Anthony Hamilton. Famously, Hargrove dropped the RH Factor’sDistractions and his own Nothing Serious on the same day in 2006.

Personal challenges kept Hargrove out of the studio for much of the last decade of his career, though Earfood (2008), and the big band recording Emergence (2009) rate, along with Habana, as his finest moments. Hargrove’s closer on Earfood, Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home to Me”, might be the most soulful recording of his career.

Perhaps summing up Roy Hargrove’s career, the late music critic and author Rashod Ollison wrote in the Baltimore Sun in 2006, “No matter what the trumpeter dives into it – pop, hard bop, hip- hop, blues, R&B, Cuban jazz, jazz standards – the native Texan charges the material with soul. It's that essential, transcendental feeling that invigorates and electrifies music, giving it life.”

Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University, Durham, NC, USA. Prof Neal has been conjuring analog for a digital world for a long time; Check him at @NewBlackMan + @LeftofBlack + BookerBBBrown on the ‘Gram + and the home-base at NewBlackMan (in Exile).

The Roy Hargrove Factor

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