Jazz ‘round L.A.: Hats Off to Roy Hargrove
By Joy Childs
Ask him what type of hat he’s wearing this night, and, despite his sunglasses, you can still see the corners of Roy Hargrove’s eyes crinkle as he smiles and says, “I buy my hats from a place call Rag & Bone [in New York] — I went in there and I saw their hats and I was like, I like those … so I bought all the ones he had!”
Tonight his headpiece is a stingy brim.
When it comes to musical hats, though, Hargrove mostly wears two: the Roy Hargrove Jazz Quintet bebop hat and RH-Factor funk hat.
He wore both at Catalina Bar and Grill this past weekend.
You know it’s gonna be “nice” set when the first strains you hear transport you to a smoky New York downtown around Greenwich Village à la the 1960s. Sweet, swinging ballads and quintessential bop, bebop, rebop — whatever you wanna call it — those elements were in full effect at trumpeter Roy Hargrove’s weekend set at the Catalina Bar and Grill.
Though gone are the days when musicians feel compelled to out the names of the tunes they play — and so it was with Hargrove at his outing this past weekend — even without that information, the audience delighted in the magnificence that was the swing and the swag of Hargrove’s arsenal of young but veteran players dedicated to carrying a new jazz mantle — one where jazz meets funk meets hip-hop.
Sullivan Fortner on piano; Ameen Saleem on bass; Justin Robinson on sax; and Quincy Phillips on drums, along with Hargrove, never disappointed the audience, playing hard at every type of musical genre in the leader’s diverse jazz repertoire. He himself moved effortlessly from trumpet to muted trumpet and from fast to slow, all the while painting aesthetically rich colors on duets with Robinson, on bossa nova beats or on balladic solos.
Near the end of the set Hargrove donned his funk hat for, of all things, Jerome Kern’s “The Way You Look Tonight,” which, in Hargrove’s hands became “Lookin’ Good [Tonight].” At the end of the second set the diminutive trumpet player showed off his vocal stylings on a little ditty about “fried chicken … greens … hog maws … hot water cornbread …” and the like. Funk with flavor, I’d call it.
Unless you’ve seen him, you may be struck by his short stature. But you’d be more struck by how large Hargrove is in his dedication to his craft.
In fact, initially we found a player very reluctant to talk, noting “I do all my talking with my trumpet …” Ultimately, though, he did agree to “just a few questions.”
LAS: Most of the jazz performances I’ve seen have been here and in New York. I’m wondering, Do you notice a significant difference in the audiences here and there in terms of their reception to your music?RH: I’ll tell you like this … We play a week in New York? Pretty much every night’s sold out. Place is filled up Tuesday through Sunday … whereas here, they come on the weekends. That’s probably the only difference I see … as far as the turnout [is concerned]. But then that has a lot to do with the way of life, I guess. People go to work here, you know, throughout the week. There’s quite a few artists that live in New York.
LAS: Do you live there?RH: I live in New York … in the Village … around Soho, right on the edge of Alphabet City.
LAS: You’ve played with so many people — and I’m sure you get asked this question a lot — but for my readership, Is there anybody else, living or dead, you’d like to [have] play[ed] with RH: Well, yeah, of course. I really wanna do a recording with Sonny Rollins. I mean I’ve done that already, but I wanna do it extensively with my group.
LAS: Which group?
RH: My quintet! Yeah, that’s a dream of mine — to have him as a guest with my group.
LAS: Have you started down that road yet?RH: I mean — he’s leaning toward a yes. [Laughs.] He hasn’t said yes yet, but I’m working on him!
LAS: Well, then, you must have been very proud of his accomplishment as one of the Kennedy Center honorees for last year?RH: Yeah, I was there for that … We honored him.
LAS: What’s your next project?RH: I’m trying to get that Sonny Rollins thing on the ball … I mean, I’ve been bringing new material to my quintet — whenever they’re ready, we might do that. I’d also like to try something along the lines of, you know, maybe a mainstream [album] with my brother. He’s a pianist … writes very well, so I’m trying to get something going on with him … … And I had an idea I wanted to work with Larry Blackmon [of Cameo] — I had an idea — I wanted to put together a rhythm section with Larry Blackmon and Prince … and Jermaine Jackson … bass, guitar, drums — and maybe Bernard Wright [a funk and jazz keyboardist]—I’ve already worked with him before.
LAS: And this would be for RH Factor?RH: Oh yeah, this would be some funky stuff … I mean I was playing around with some names, you know … and I really dig them as musicians too.
LAS: You wouldn’t get the man himself? George Clinton?RH: Oh, fo’ sure! If he would have me! I mean, as far as that goes, I’d get him to help me produce it. I would like to see his vision — he’s a visionary.
LAS: Is there any particular genre you’d like to explore — you’ve done jazz, funk, R&B — what about something like country, or gospel?RH: Well, gospel is in everything I do. That’s just in there regardless ’cause if it wasn’t for the lord, I wouldn’t be here doing nothing. [Laughs.]
LAS: What about country music?RH: Yeah, I like country. I mean I never really thought about recording anything like that … But I guess maybe I could … I like the storytelling … they’re always telling good stories in the music. It’s some good guitar players too.
LAS: Roy, I’ve seen you at the Hollywood Bowl, here at Catalina, at the Jazz Bakery and elsewhere. And one of the things you do that amuses me — in a good way — is to hear you sing —RH: — Oh Lord! [Laughs.]
LAS: So when you broke out in that soul food ditty, I just wondered if there’s a singing —RH: — Man, I can’t sing. I mean, I don’t think I’m a singer but you know—
LAS: — At least, you can carry a tune!RH: When I was a little kid, I sang in the choir and I mean you know I’ve always played around with it. I never really got into it seriously… it’s so much pressure that comes along with that … ’cause everybody thinks they can sing [laughs] … and, the first time you open up your mouth, people say, ‘No, play the trumpet!’ [Laughs.]
LAS: But here’s the thing … I’m sure you heard about the delight people expressed when Obama sang the first few phrases of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together”—It was kinda like, “Damn, I didn’t know the brother could blow like that! …” So that was my reaction to him. And even if you don’t see the analogy—and maybe it isn’t the best one — you get my point — I was like, “Damn, this boy can blow!” I’m just saying …RH: I think people can appreciate it when you throw it in every now and then if you’re a musician that plays an instrument. If you vocalize just a little bit, then it’s always refreshing — especially when cats like Louis Armstrong did that, Dizzy [Gillespie] did it every now and then. But you know, it’s not something I’m gonna make a full-time effort, you know [laughs] … I have a feeling some people might get mad if I do that! They’d say, ‘All right, enough! Get back to the trumpet, man — play the trumpet man!’
LAS: I have one more question: One of your central philosophies seems to be wrapped up in a quote I found in an interview you did a few years ago where you said: ‘People are turning a deaf ear to jazz. Some of that is the fault of jazz musicians trying too hard to appear to be cerebral. They aren’t having fun playing the music and that’s why people aren’t coming to hear it live anymore … What do we have to offer in the world of jazz today It’s about being innovative, which is cool. But innovation right now will come in music that’s swinging and feels good. It’s meaningless if it doesn’t make you feel something …’I found that really to be a really interesting because for me it explains the popularity of smooth jazz [i.e., some of which is danceable] as opposed to straight-ahead jazz. I think all music makes you feel something, so my question is, when you say that, do you mean that jazz has to make you move [ to be well-received]?RH: I mean, in general I feel that most people you know when they come out to hear live music, they just wanna feel good, you know, as opposed to being educated all the time, you know. I mean, there’s something to be said for, you know, an intellectual side of music, you know, which is stimulating as well. But most of the time people just wanna have a good time and have something that takes them out of their regular day-to-day hardships. You wanna feel good about what you heard, and a lot of time I think the musicians forget about that in their own trying to be different or trying to be innovative—
LAS: … or trying to be deep.RH: Yeah. I mean, that’s cool to do that … but you can’t do that the whole time. At some point, you gotta bring it on home and play something that’s swinging and that’s beautiful, you know that people could say, ‘Oh yeah, that was nice’ …Which is exactly what people said as they left the Catalina Bar and Grill.