A touring madman, Hargrove can be seen regularly at major jazz festivals throughout Europe, fronting his big band at the Jazz Gallery in New York, and at a multitude of other performances in major cities across the country. He recently completed guest appearances at the May 2008 hip-hop-meets-jazz summit in Paris with legendary jazz bassist Ron Carter and French rapper MC Solaar and a June 2008 celebration of Hank Jones’ 90th birthday at the JVC Jazz Festival in New York, plus the Toronto Jazz Festival and Playboy Jazz Festival also in June 2008. He’s everywhere!
Despite Hargrove’s dabbling in the here and there, the most formidable expression of his talent is the ballad and all that is considered classic jazz. The quality of his trumpet and flugelhorn playing is a rarity in these modern days. It is particularly delightful to the most diehard jazz purist, that Hargrove is the sort of musician that believes in the jazz continuum. He says, "I wanted to make music that lasts awhile, to make an album that people can enjoy for a lot longer than one month." His latest effort, Earfood (nicknamed Good Nutrition), his maiden voyage on Groovin’High/Emarcy, is evidence of that fact.
Earfood contains 13 post-bop tracks, six which are Hargrove’s originals, with all the essentials for good listening. His quintet, comprised of Justin Robinson on alto sax and flute, Gerald Clayton on Piano, Danton Boller on bass and Montez Coleman on drums, is so tight, you couldn’t slip a piece of sheet music in between them. "We’ve all come to know each other really well the more we’ve played together," says Hargrove, "They all have good attitudes and we travel well together, which makes a big difference." This closeness also had a hand in the development of Earfood in the studio. Legendary engineer, Al Schmitt, allowed Hargrove and his band to completely focus on the music and forget the technical side of things, which is optimum for producing a tight groove. "I was introduced to Al by my manager almost ten years ago," says Hargrove. "I didn’t know him, but then I realized that he was a part of all my favorite recordings. He’s the best there is. He stayed out of the way, but whatever happened in the studio, he caught on tape. Al let the music speak for itself."
Of the six original Hargrove compositions on the album, the harmonic "Brown," played on mute trumpet and named so because Hargrove wrote it on a brown piano, was originally written for the Directions in Music tour he did with Hancock and Brecker. It is followed by his 50s sounding tune "Strasbourg/St. Denis," which features a "spiral sax/trumpet dance." "Everyone likes this tune," Hargrove says. "It’s one of my favorites too. This song came to me in a dream in a one-and-a-half-star hotel in Paris. I woke up in the middle of the night and wrote it down." "Strasbourg/St. Denis" is one of Hargrove’s best originals on the album and should become immediately recognizable, perhaps even thought of a signature piece.
Another Hargrove original is the swinging song "The Stinger." ("It’s written for all the people in the world who let things fly out of their mouths before thinking," he says). "Style," written on an old opera hall piano in Orvieto, Italy, is Hargrove’s tribute to the way Italians "dress and eat, where it’s always an event." It seems wherever there is a piano and a thought, Hargrove is knocking out a musical idea. Both tunes lend a clue into his inventive thought process.
Getting back to the ballad, Hargrove is also at his very best with his pensive "Joy is Sorrow Unmasked," a slow melody inspired from poet/philosopher Kahlil Gibran’s book The Prophet. "Rouge" is Hargrove’s experiment with writing a tune without tempo that expresses colors, especially his favorite, red. The last of Hargrove’s originals on Earfood is "Divine," a very beautiful, and his most recent composition, written on the piano with a descending line. "I was just trying to write something pretty," says Hargrove.
Of the non-original songs on Earfood, all are tied to Hargrove’s personal history. As he tells the history of each selection he chose for the album, you get the up close and personal insight into the artist and how his musical mind thinks and evolves. The selection that is most reminiscent of all the wonderful ballads I’ve heard Hargrove play over the years is the utterly gorgeous "Speak Low," a Kurt Weill-Ogden Nash tune that Sarah Vaughan used to sing. "I loved her voice, choice of tunes and delivery," says Hargrove. "She was an influence on my playing."
I remember back to what Hargrove told me in a previous interview at Yoshi’s in Oakland many years back. I asked him how he put so much feeling into each ballad. He said that the lyrics to a song are all important when he is playing it; they give meaning to the melody and original concept of the song. He definitely takes the lyrics to heart because nothing is greater than hearing Hargrove weep the feeling out of "Speak Low" on this album. He oozes so much emotion out of his flugelhorn, it’s awe-inspiring.
"Starmaker," a slow-tempo song written by Lou Marini, was introduced to Hargrove by his manager several years ago. ("It makes me think of ‘The Theme from M*A*S*H,’" he says. The mid-tempo beauty "To Wisdom the Prize" is a tune penned by ex-band member Larry Willis. "Larry was one of my teachers," says Hargrove. "He graced us with his presence for six years." Another selection on the album is the funk-inflected "Mr. Clean," written by Weldon Irvine, Jr., from one of Hargrove’s favorite albums, Freddie Hubbard’s 1970 masterpiece, Straight Life. "Freddie was my hero on the trumpet," says Hargrove. "When I first heard him, I tried to emulate him. He had a very classic style that went back to Clifford Brown, as well as a contemporary edge. I always tried to play like him and I still am."
Lastly, the only live track on Earfood is Sam Cooke’s "Bring It on Home to Me," recorded in Gleisdorf, Austria. Clayton plays a churchy piano and Hargrove leads the brass exhilaration. "I’m definitely into Sam Cooke," he says. "I read his biography a few years back and then listened to everything he recorded. I love this tune."
Roy Hargrove is a major force in today’s jazz scene. Born out of his instrument, his open-ended harmonies bring new possibilities while continuing his artistic evolution in the essential core jazz.
Decca Label Group
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