Although several of his legendary predecessors met their maker while much younger the death of Roy Hargrove from a heart attack at the age of 49 is still a tragic event. Generally tagged as a five-star exponent of post-bop the trumpeter-composer was a hugely versatile artist who spread his stylistic net far and wide. Born in Waco, Texas, in 1969 and discovered by Wynton Marsalis, who heard him play as a teenager at his local high school, Hargrove studied briefly at Berklee but really honed his craft at jam sessions in New York in the early 90s, going on to become a key young voice on the acoustic jazz scene of the decade. The lustrous tone and swirling turn of phrase heard on albums such as Diamond In The Rough and With The Tenors Of Our Time, that paired him with icons such as Johnny Griffin, earned Hargrove favourable press. His charisma also made him an eye catching proposal for A&R executives.
Sharp-suited and neatly barbered, Hargrove was presented more or less in the Wynton mould, ‘The Tradition’ was safe in his hands. However, his horizons expanded, and his 1998 album Crisol was the first significant step on an exciting evolutionary road. This was a fine set of contemporary Latin jazz where Hargrove’s soaring lyricism, melodic finesse and challenging improvisations came to the fore in a band that included such luminaries as pianist Chucho Valdes and saxophonist Gary Bartz. It deservedly landed Hargrove a Latin Grammy and, perhaps more importantly, served notice of his ability to write and arrange as well as solo at length.
Even sharper twists were to come, though. Hargrove had never denied his love for black popular music as well as jazz, and in the early 2000’s he made a vital contribution to three key albums in soul and hip-hop of the period – D’Angelo‘s Voodoo, Erykah Badu‘s Mama’s Gun and Common‘s Like Water For Chocolate. His horn arrangements and concise, punchy solos, particularly on songs with rapped verses and heavy duty beats, revealed a real understanding of how a soloist could enhance a groove without overwhelming it by the force of his own chops. Image-wise Hargrove went from suits to dreads, and the sartorial change looked like a good fit.
But better was to come. He founded his own electric band, The R.H Factor and made an ambitious fusion album, The Hard Groove, whose stellar guest list included Q-Tip, Meshell Ndegeocello and Steve Coleman. It turned out to be something of a forerunner for similarly eclectic projects years down the line. Think both Robert Glasper, who toured with Hargrove as a youngster, and Theo Croker, who has always been very vocal about the inspiration he drew from the trumpeter.
Hargrove would return to an acoustic setting for the last part of his career but hip-hop and funk resonances permeated his work in subtle ways. A singer as well as a horn player, Hargrove, like Louis Armstrong and Donald Byrd, was always comfortable straddling the boundary between high art and populism, and his premature passing is a terrible loss to audiences who were happy to listen beyond rather than within boundaries.
– Kevin Le Gendre
– Photo by Tim Dickeson