Roy Hargrove: Can’t Stop Won’t Stop

Roy Hargrove peppers his talk with the ebullient cadence of a man fully engaged with his purpose in life. For him, it’s obvious that he was born to play live.

No matter how fatigued or frustrated he may be, the award-winning trumpeter, bandleader and composer pulls through like a prize athlete, oftentimes pushing past physical pain, mental exhaustion and emotional anguish as if his life depended on it. “I give my complete all to it,” Hargrove explains. “For me, every time we hit, it’s like that last time. I take it so seriously; sometimes I think I take it too seriously. When something goes wrong, I think it’s the end of the world.”

Hargrove’s self-imposed demands as a musician are often matched by his arduous work schedule—he’s almost always on the road. And catching up with him can be challenging. On this late July afternoon, he’s just finished a three-week European tour on the festival circuit. With only about a day or two of respite, he’s gearing up for a gig in California and then it’s back to Europe. “Asking me to play is like asking me to breathe. I’m looking for somewhere to play all the time,” he says over the phone from his Brooklyn home.

His complete immersion into his artistry has given Hargrove impressive longevity. At 39, he’s steadily evolving from the whippersnapper from Dallas, Texas, who emerged in the late ’80s as part of the neobop movement, into a formidable musical force who’s inspiring a new generation of young guns. While he exhibits nonchalance about becoming a mentor, he embraces the concept. “I’ve never really thought of myself as that,” Hargrove laughs. “But as I get older, things change. I do want to give the younger musicians a chance.”

His role as a mentor is evident on his sparkling new disc, Earfood (Emarcy), on which he showcases his new quintet, composed of bright lights such as drummer Montez Coleman, pianist Gerald Clayton and bassist Danton Boller. When asked how these three new talents came to be in the group, Hargrove replies that he never recruits anyone; rather, he picks his band through referrals from other musicians. Such was the case with Boller, who was recommended to Hargrove by his former drummer, Willie Jones III. “I really like his pulse, and he has a great attitude as well,” Hargrove enthuses about his new bassist. He also rejoices over Boller’s professionalism, especially when dealing with traveling. “He always has a small bag,” Hargrove laughs.

The trumpeter ran across Coleman at New York’s Zinc Bar. As far as the prodigious 24-year-old Clayton, son of famed bassist John Clayton and nephew of saxophonist Jeff Clayton, Hargrove first heard him when he was still in his teens. “Even then, I thought he had enormous potential with incredible dexterity and technique. And he’s very eager to learn,” Hargrove praises.

Sharing the frontline is alto saxophonist and flutist Justin Robinson, one of Hargrove’s contemporaries, who’s also been a mainstay in his ensembles for the past six years. “Justin has been playing with me for so long that he knows just about everything that I’m going to do before I do it,” Hargrove says. “He breathes with me; it’s like one horn, almost.”

Robinson’s connection with Hargrove goes even further than his membership in the ensemble. The two met in 1990 when Hargrove finally made the move to the Big Apple. “He was one of the guys who welcomed me into the New York fold of musicians,” Hargrove says of Robinson, who at that time was running the after-hours jam sessions at the Blue Note. Hargrove’s longtime manager Larry Clothier introduced them, but even before that, Robinson had heard of Hargrove through pianist Stephen Scott.

“We just hit it off,” Robinson recalls of meeting Hargrove. Even during those formative years, Robinson recognized Hargrove’s potential for becoming a consummate musician. “Everything was there already when I met him, conceptually. It was just a matter of developing the concept and playing,” Robinson says before telling a story of Hargrove’s inquisitive nature. “I remember we were playing an old tune at the Blue Note, and he didn’t know all the chord changes, so he sat down at a table and wrote them out on a napkin.”

Canonical knowledge has proved to be one of Hargrove’s trump cards. When he goes onstage, he constantly surprises listeners with his encyclopedic knowledge of compositions. He’s able to play not only an immense variety of standard tunes, but also obscure gems, composed by such modern figures such as Weldon Irvine, Cedar Walton and Larry Willis. (All three of their respective compositions, “Mr. Clean,” “I’m Not So Sure” and “To Wisdom the Prize,” appear on Earfood.)

Hargrove can’t cite exactly how many compositions he knows: “I know a few songs,” he says with a giggle, and he readily stresses the importance of being able to access material from an expansive repertoire. “It’s vital to being a jazz musician. You have to know these tunes,” he argues. “You have to go beyond knowing just the standard ones in the Real Book. You have to really live these songs—go inside of the American songbook and see the musicals where the songs came from, and learn the verses to the songs.”

When Hargrove emphasizes the need to learn the verses of songs, one can’t help but wonder if he sings. He certainly hones a soulful, oftentimes pithy lyricism in his trumpet playing, especially on ballads in which he can uncoil a melody with the sensuality and emotional directness of an old-school soul singer. “I wish that I could sing. I sure would be making more money,” he chuckles. “I can get through a song and make people think that I can sing. But after that first song, people are going to be, ‘OK, Roy, pull out the trumpet.’”

Having such reverence for compositions and a willingness to pull out obscure songs on the bandstand at a moment’s notice does offer challenges, especially when dealing with an ensemble composed of younger, comparatively less-knowledgeable musicians. In the past, Hargrove anchored his ensemble with jazz wisdom by his intriguing choices of pianists, most notably Willis and the recently departed Ronnie Mathews. For Hargrove, the piano chair is the most important one in his groups. “I’ve had younger guys and some of my peers play—and not to take away from any of their playing, because they were all brilliant and original—but there was oftentimes something missing, because they weren’t complete pianists,” Hargrove explains. “So that’s the reason why I brought players like Larry Willis and Ronnie Mathews into the band, so that the rest of guys—my age or younger—can get that playing experience and education as well.”

With that said, how is Clayton faring in the piano chair? “There is definitely a big sense of responsibility being in the piano chair,” Clayton says. “You have to come correct based upon the lineage of his previous pianists. With an artist like Roy, there is so much homework that needs to be done. Not only are you dealing with the lineage of pianists like Larry Willis and Ronnie Mathews, you’re dealing just how much music Roy has checked out, like the hip-hop and R&B stuff, too.”

Luckily for Hargrove, there’s Robinson, whom he refers to as the quintet’s “librarian.” “He has everything in the book, all the music,” Hargrove says. “So whenever I need to play something and have to reach back four or five years, he always has the music to that particular song. When we’re onstage, Justin is always right there. If I start a song and maybe the others guys don’t know really what I’m playing yet, he’ll key right in on it. The rhythm section is coming along; it’s getting close to knowing how I operate.”

Clayton describes Hargrove as a “mysterious” bandleader who leads by example. “He’s not the type of person who tells people exactly what he wants; he allows the music to grow organically. But no matter what he’s gone through earlier in the day, plane delays and all of that stuff, when he comes on the bandstand, he’s serious. That’s really inspiring.”

Robinson adds, “As a bandleader, Roy knows what he wants. That sounds easier than it is. It’s one thing to say, ‘Yeah, I want to do this, I want to do that.’ But it’s another thing to have the vision and actually articulate it and execute it. He has that gift.”

Hargrove doesn’t go into specifics about his approach to bandleading. Nevertheless he points out the significance of ear training. “Don’t sleep on the ear training, because if you can play what you hear, you’re about halfway there,” he says. “Most of the time when people hire you, they just want to know if you can play what you hear. Leaders don’t want to have to bother with writing out a lot of music. They want to be able to give you a recording of something, you listen to it, and then you know it. That’s basically what they are paying you to do.”

Speaking of the ear, Hargrove explains the meaning behind the title of his new disc. “Earfood is nutrition. Sometimes when I hear a song, I can taste and smell the same things associated with the time when it originally came out. When I hear good music, it’s like food to me.”

Indeed, Earfood delivers tasty morsels of modern jazz, seasoned with flavors drawing from many of Hargrove’s sensibilities, namely postbop, funk, blues and gospel. It finds him in exemplary form, crafting singable melodies, embellished with flinty improvisations as his quintet provides the ideal foil, displaying bracing empathy and sparkling responsiveness.

On Earfood, Hargrove superbly reconciles his multifaceted influences into a cohesive aesthetic like never before. The peppy original “Strasbourg/St. Denis” and his gangsta-leaning take on Irvine’s “Mr. Clean” illustrate his affinity for R&B and funk, while the renderings of Lou Marini’s spectral “Starmaker” and Hargrove’s own sensual “Joy Is Sorrow Unmasked” show his mastery at balladry. Then there are original excursions like “The Stinger” and “Divine” that embody modern postbop at its best. He caps off the disc with a stunning live performance of Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home to Me.” Perhaps what makes Earfood such a delight is its clarity; Hargrove and his cohorts sound at ease with a singular purpose of serving memorable tunes with an emotional immediacy that entice listeners to revisit.

At times, the compositions and communal interplay recall the magic alto saxophonist and composer Bobby Watson forged with drummer and composer Victor Lewis a decade ago with their magnificent Horizon band. Hargrove sees that as no mere coincidence, given that Watson provided him with his first recording experience on his 1988 LP, No Question About It (Blue Note). “Bobby was one of my teachers; he had a lot to do with pushing me along. What I learned from him was how to be very melodic and soulful and still retain a harmonic sophistication. He wrote soulful melodies that could be borderline R&B tunes if you put a backbeat to them. But then when you get into those chord changes, it becomes a whole other world,” Hargrove says.

Considering Hargrove’s recent forays into R&B, funk and hip-hop with his scintillating RH Factor as well his renowned work with such soul and hip-hop superstars as Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, Common and Q-Tip, it’s easy to label Earfood a return to jazz and look at RH Factor discs like 2003’s Hard Groove, 2004’s EP Strength and 2006’s Distractions (all on Verve) as, well, distractions and detours. Hargrove sees his artistic trajectory differently. “It’s just music to me,” he explains. “If I’m playing funk or jazz or whatever, I’m going to try to get down to whatever element that makes its style and embodiment. If I’m playing jazz, it’s going to have to swing really hard. And if I’m playing funk then it’s got to be really in the pocket.”

Although RH Factor is currently inactive, Hargrove hopes to revisit the group and incorporate rock guitar. “I want to explore that area that Miles Davis was working on with the Bitches Brew stuff,” he says. In addition, Hargrove has formed a 17-piece big band, composed of mostly “young ringers.” When asked about future musical plans, Hargrove doesn’t seem to be keeping track or mapping out goals. For him it’s all about constantly learning and living for the music. “Right now,” he says, “I’m just trying to keep the tradition alive.”

“With Roy, music is 24/7,” Clayton adds. “There’s always a learning opportunity for him. It’s really a matter of music—all day, all night.”

Originally published in December 2008

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