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Roy Hargrove: Brass, Wind & Fire

There’s an undeniable bit of swagger to the best trumpet players. It’s no small coincidence then that one of the colloquial definitions of the word ‘brass’ is, to quote Webster’s, “bold impudence.”

Think of Freddie Hubbard, the very personification of swagger. Of course, Miles walked that walk. Young Armstrong was the king of swagger because he knew just how bad he was. Ditto Wynton. Jon Faddis oozes a kind of macho confidence on the bandstand as does Wallace Roney. And Roy Hargrove is definitely in that number.

Exceptionally gifted as a teenager, acclaimed as the point man for the Young Lions movement of the early ’90s and still a firebrand at 26, Hargrove exudes an irrepressible energy on stage that lights up any bandstand. Whether it’s sitting in on someone else’s gig, fronting his own 17-piece big band or sextet, playing trio with Stephen Scott and Christian McBride or jumping on the clave with his fiery Crisol ensemble, the extroverted young trumpeter always comes eager to play.

At a recent Crisol performance in prestigious Avery Fisher Hall as part of the JVC Jazz Festival in New York, Roy could barely contain his enthusiasm alongside his bandmates. Knee-deep in the churning Afro-Cuban groove of “Mr. Bruce” (pianist Chucho Valdes’ contribution to their recent Verve release, Habana), Hargrove literally hopped around on stage during his solo like a member of a sanctified church swept up by the Holy Spirit. That kind of unbridled exuberance not only rubbed off on the frontline of David Sanchez on tenor sax, Frank Lacy on trombone and Sherman Irby on alto sax, it carried to the back row of Avery Fisher Hall. The combination of  Valdes’ forceful comping with a mesmerizing, polyrhythm undercurrent provided by guitarist Ed Cherry, Miguel “Anga” Diaz on congas, Jose Luis “Changuito” Quintana on timbales and Julio Barretto on drums worked its spell on the cavernous room and lit a fire in Roy’s soul. And he responded with some of his most impassioned playing since he was a “Diamond In The Rough.”

In his meteoric ascendency-word of mouth buzz while still attending Dallas’ Booker T. Washington High, major label debut at age 20, cover story subject and poll winner by age 23-Habana represents yet another landmark along the way for Roy Hargrove. And while some less confident players might have been somewhat apprehensive about plunging headlong into the depths of Cuban music, Roy says he was gungho for the Habana project.

“I had been very interested in music that was made by Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo and also Charlie Parker and Machito and his orchestra and the various things that Kenny Dorham did in that idiom. But I didn’t really get the full grasp of it until I actually went to Cuba and had that experience with the musicians there, playing with them and interacting with them. It was like reaffirming myself with my own roots, so to speak…the strong African tradition that comes across in the rhythms that the drummers play. So to me it was just like going home.”

The seeds of this ambitious culture exchange project go back to February of 1996 when pianist Chucho Valdes invited Roy and his quintet to participate in the 16th annual Havana Jazz Festival. During his 11 days there, Hargrove absorbed the culture, the sights and, of course, the sounds of Cuba. Admittedly, he was a relative newcomer to the clave until his Cuban colleagues schooled him in the rudiments of cowbell, timbales, congas and guiro. “You have to have an understanding of the style and the concept of all the different rhythms going on,” says Roy. “That’s what really helped me because at first I was having a little bit of difficulty just trying to lock in to what was going on. But when I hung out with some of the musicians and they showed me what each of the percussion instruments plays, it really helped me understand what it took to really get inside what was going on with the music.”

Back in New York that summer of ’96, conga player Diaz played with Roy’s big band for a week-long engagement at the Village Vanguard. By September, both Valdes and Diaz would become an integral part of Hargrove’s big band. By late December, Roy Hargrove’s Crisol (Spanish for crucible or melting pot) was unveiled at the Umbria Jazz Festival’s winter edition in Orvieto, Italy. The last day of their week-long stay there was devoted to a recording session for Verve at the opera house Teatro Mancinelli.

Since making this Cuban connection, Hargrove says his own playing has been greatly affected. “Now the more that I play with these cats,” he continues, “the more I find that it really expands my whole concept of rhythm and the way I build solos. I found that out after playing with these guys for a couple of weeks on the road and then coming back here to New York and sitting in with some cats at a jam session. It felt so different playing straight ahead after dealing with the clave. I felt so much freer in a way that I can hardly explain. It was like, ‘Wow…open air! Freedom!’ It’s just something that just came from being in the warmth. You attach yourself to this music, you reaffirm yourself with the roots and it just takes you even further with what you’re doing.”

While Hargrove may have taken his own playing up a notch, he remains eternally humbled by the music and by the instrument itself. There may be a touch of swagger in his stride-a natural entitlement of all trumpeters-but he is by no means cocky. “Uh, no, I still think I’m sad,” he laughs. “I’m still trying to figure out the trumpet. The trumpet is hard. Yeah, it’s one of those instruments…it’s like what Dizzy said: It sits there in a case surrounded by luxury, just waiting to mess somebody up when they pick it up. And Roy Eldridge said: The trumpet is a mean instrument because one day it’ll treat you real nice and just everything will come out just perfectly and the next day you pull out the horn to do it all over again and the trumpet says, ‘Nah! I don’t think so!’ So it’s an ongoing struggle and it really just requires discipline. The brass instruments, you have to pick them up every day to do those tedious rudimentary things like long tones, lip slurs, stuff like that. Yeah, it’s rough.”

Despite the percolating grooves and bravado playing that permeate Habana, some of the most satisfying moments happen on Bartz’s darkly delicate “Nusia’s Poem,” a great vehicle for Hargrove’s very intimate and personal fluegelhorn sound. “I was really leaning towards a more vocal, sort of lyrical way of approaching the tune,” he says, “because it’s such a beautiful song. You don’t have to play too much on something like that. I’m really trying to exercise ‘less is more’ at this point. Because, you know, it really is. You don’t have to say everything you know on every song. You can play one note and just vibe on a rhythm.”

He also exercises restraint and a sublime sense of lyricism on his own “Ballad Of The Children.” As he says, “I like to play pretty ballads on fluegelhorn. I take my inspiration from Freddie Hubbard and Clark Terry, and I always try to play like a singer.”

Today, Hargrove practically sneers at the notion of being a Young Lion. “I’m feeling more expansive as far as recording and playing music,” he offers. “I really feel there are so many different areas to be explored and I don’t want to limit myself to any one particular place in jazz or in music. I’ve got a lot of ideas, things that I want to do. And this Crisol project, I feel, will help me get my foot in the door to be able to really reach a lot of people. Because there’s so many things going on culturally within the band between Puerto Rico, Cuba and the States…it’s bound to attract a very diverse audience, different people from different listening cultures. I can see that already in evidence when we go out on tour. You see a lot of different kinds of fans…you got jazz fans and then you got Latin jazz fans and then you got the straight up hip-hop cats. They all come out. It’s beautiful.”


For the past several years, Hargrove played a Monet trumpet given to him by Wynton Marsalis. He has switched to a hand hammered trumpet specially designed for him by Swiss craftsman Thomas Inderbinen. “I told him that I like to have a dark sound but with a little bit of an edge to it. And I also need a horn that won’t break up when I really lean on it and play hard. A lot of the horns that I had, the bells were too small to really take the force. So I told him to design something that was a little bit heavier in the bell area so that I could project without it distorting. It’s a large horn and he’s poured silver over the bell to enhance the tone.”

Listening Pleasures

Biggie Smalls, Life After Death (Death Row)

John Coltrane, Live In Seattle (Impulse!)

Clifford Brown, Clifford Brown with Strings (Emarcy)

Sacred Rhythms Of Cuban Santeria (Smithsonian Folkways)

Originally Published