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'Hard Groove' by Roy Hargrove - A Review

By David Okamoto, KERA 90.1 commentator

Dallas, TX – [Track 2: "Common Free Style"]

It didn't have the jaw-dropping, mind-blowing impact of Bob Dylan going electric at Newport. But when jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove debuted his hip-hop ensemble The RH Factor at the Monterey Jazz Festival last year, there were a few gripes amidst the grins.

A graduate of Dallas' Booker T. Washington School for the Visual and Performing Arts, Waco-born Hargrove has been revered as a trusted guardian of the post-bop flame ever since he was plucked out of the school band by Wynton Marsalis, who invited him onstage at Caravan of Dreams in 1987. Despite his popularity among jazz purists, 33-year-old Hargrove is hardly a staunch traditionalist. Indeed, he is one of the few non-saxophonists bold enough to tackle Charlie Parker's repertoire and recently he's been moonlighting as a guest player on albums by Common, Erykah Badu and D'Angelo. Those three R&B titans pay back the favor with vocal cameos on "Hard Groove," Hargrove's first recorded venture into funk and hip-hop specifically credited to The RH Factor to ward off instant refund requests from his hard-core jazz audience.

[Track 13: "Juicy"]

While neither as experimental as Matthew Shipp, politically charged as Russell Gunn, nor playful as Branford Marsalis' Buckshot LeFonque side project, Hargrove's 21st century take on fusion makes for compelling listening and dancing because jazz remains the anchor, not just a motif. While hip-hop artists lift and loop solos from classic LPs as hooks, the RH Factor relies on live instrumentation, from rock-solid rhythm sections to such cheesy '70s staples as Arp synthesizers and Clavinet and Fender Rhodes keyboards.

But the most prevalent sound is Hargrove. Despite the emphasis on grooves, his trumpet reverberates throughout almost every track, whether he's taking searing, soulful solos, dueling with saxophonists Keith Anderson and Jacques Schwartz-Bart, or mutating his horn with wah-wah pedals and other effects. Even when D'Angelo commandeers the mic on a sumptuous version of Funkadelic's "I'll Stay" or Badu free-associates over a tune simply titled "Poetry," Hargrove makes his presence felt, echoing the melody line or floating around the beat like a ghost haunting a speakeasy.

[Track 6: "Poetry"]

With references to the rhythmic racket of Miles Davis' 1969 classic "Bitches Brew" and Herbie Hancock's "Head Hunters" - as well as today's smooth jazz - "Hard Groove" clearly taps into the checkered history of fusion. But the band's cohesive clout and Hargrove's forward-looking vision prevent it from lapsing into a nostalgic homage. Mainstream jazz stars like Hargrove are often scrutinized for trying to broaden their audience, but "Hard Groove" shows the difference between stretching out and selling out.

[Track 1: "Hard Groove"]


David Okamoto is a senior entertainment producer at Yahoo Broadcast and a contributing editor to ICE magazine.