The music of “Voicemail,” which opens The Mugician – from trumpeter Keyon Harrold – is beautiful. But as accompaniment to inspirational thoughts from Harrold’s mother, a jazz-quintet-plus-five-background-vocalists-and-a-string-quartet lays it on awfully thick. Using a voicemail is clichéd, too. Unfortunately, “Voicemail” sets the tone for Harrold’s album. It tries too hard and yields little we haven’t already heard.
Similarly, the track behind Guy Torry’s politically/racially charged spoken word on “When Will It Stop” has appeal, particularly Nir Felder’s funky guitar and Harrold’s overdubbed trumpet and flugelhorn. But Torry has the spotlight and he’s artless—a lecturer. More ponderous still is Andrea Pizziconi’s “Broken News,” which doesn’t so much comment on contemporary issues as list them, or rub one’s nose in them.
The Mugician’s lone political success is “Circus Show,” featuring bluesman Gary Clark Jr., whose style allows for bluntness without fists of ham. The album fares much better when the intensity goes to less overtly topical places, such as when Jermaine Holmes and Georgia Anne Muldrow take on the searing “Wayfaring Traveler,” exploring injustice’s psychological toll.
Instrumentals also garner mixed results. “MB Lament” is a poignant elegy for Michael Brown of Ferguson, Mo., with its quotes of “St. Louis Blues” and long, suspenseful notes from Harrold’s trumpet (although its strings, now 10 pieces, are again overwrought). Without nearly as much flair, “Ethereal Souls” and “Bubba Rides Again” travel similar hip-hop-infused roads as Ben Williams and Robert Glasper. (The latter is another of the album’s high-profile guests, along with Bilal and the rappers Big K.R.I.T. and Pharoahe Monch.)
Harrold also seems after the political fire of musicians like Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, Ambrose Akinmusire and Kendrick Scott, but with considerably less finesse and insight. He’s a fine trumpeter: pungent tone, technical grace (his phrasing on “MB Lament” is impeccable) and emotional resonance. But his path may not be that of The Mugician.