Trumpeter Roy Hargrove has beaten the odds.
Hargrove hit the New York City jazz scene in the late '80s amid of a blaze of hype calling him the new trumpet star. Blazes of hype were somewhat common in the jazz world then, as a succession of young, good-looking musicians seemed to take turns being flavor of the month. But Hargrove is among the very few—Joshua Redman and Brad Mehldau are among the others—to stand 20 years later, forging a career with major label support.
Most jazz pundits would not have bet on Hargrove to show such resilience. He was a mercurially talented trumpeter, but he was also a notable bad boy. With rumors swirling of drug use and womanizing, Hargrove seemed headed toward another fate: that of trumpet players who perished before their time.
But he has held on, and his latest release, Earfood (EmArcy)—backed up with choice gigs at the jazz festivals in Chicago and Detroit—is proof of his staying power.
Earfood is a pleasantly unassuming recording. The disc—or download, if that's how you roll—features Hargrove's working band: alto saxophonist Justin Robinson, pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Danton Boller and drummer Montez Coleman—on a program of 13 tunes. The repertoire is mostly originals spiced with a few nuggets like Sam Cooke's soul classic "Bring It on Home to Me" and two jazz standards, Weldon Irvine's "Mr. Clean" and Larry Willis' "To Wisdom, The Prize."
Hargrove made a name for himself with piercing high notes and a keen sense of rhythm, very much like Hubbard, but during the past decade most of his efforts have been high-concept endeavors like his jazz/neo soul disc The RH Factor with Erykah Badu, D'Angelo, Common and Q-Tip, his collaborations with Cuban piano great Chucho Valdes or his recording With the Tenors of Our Time (Verve), whose title tells it all. For the most part, that's the price of doing jazz on a major label these days. A jazz recording can't be about music; it has to be about the marketing synergies.
Yet, Earfood feels relaxed, and—impressively—it doesn't shadowbox. Hargrove is well aware of the antecedents for his disc, but he ignores them. A lesser musician might go to great lengths to either interpolate or outright sample the soulful straight-ahead jazz records of 45 years ago, but Hargrove's group exudes the confidence to establish its own straightforward voice in a well-worn genre. In an era overflowing with irony, the simple approach of Earfood feels almost insolent and rebellious.
The highlights include the first track, Hargrove's "I'm Not So Sure," where a giddy, restless rhythm is countered by suave solos from the leader, Robinson, and Clayton. "Strasbourg/St. Denis," another catchy original, displays the trumpeter's maturity. Once the proud young whippersnapper with an arsenal of high C's ready to cut heads at any jam session, Hargrove's tone has become rounder and fuller; he skips past the easy crowd-pleasing peaks in his solo, aiming instead for greater depth. On slower tunes, he uses the flugelhorn's watercolor-like timbres to great effect.
Hargrove's hip-hop influence peeks in during a rendition of "Mr. Clean," as the beats become hard and static, but Roy lays back, letting Robinson and Clayton wail over them. It's a tune made famous by Hubbard, but this group's version is distinctively postmillennial.
Hargrove is on the cusp of jazz middle age. He fast-tracked from being a teenaged phenom from Dallas to a star at Berklee College of Music to the Gotham scene, where he's played with nearly all of the giants. He's navigated the treacherous waters of the jazz world during the decline of the major labels, and now he's a veteran player. He no longer sounds like any of his influences, and no one new quite emulates him.
He still has his matinee-idol good looks (I once dated a woman who loved jazz but forbade me to accompany her to Hargrove's shows for fear that she'd say—er, scream—something I wouldn't want to hear), but on Earfood, his music is starting to exude the voice of experience. There's a quiet, serene confidence to this group's playing that runs counter to the self-consciousness in many straight-ahead jazz recordings these days. Hargrove is making music that is neither trendy nor edgy, but his group's biggest strength is that its members play as if that sort of stuff doesn't matter to them.
Martin Johnson is a New York writer.