Concert Review: Roy Hargrove – Village Vanguard

If there’s one image that can summarize Roy Hargrove’s show at the Village Vanguard Saturday night, one enduring symbol that can capture the talented horn-man’s approach to music, art, and life – it’s got to be his pants. Those pants – a pair of three-quarter length cut off suit pants – were on full display Saturday night, complemented nicely with a pair of light blue ankle socks and high-top sneakers. Of course, seeing Hargrove stand off stage in his close-cut blazer and Ray Ban shades, you could have easily confused him for one of those fashionably rebellious jazz superstars, a musician whose ego far outshines his talent. But lucky for us, Roy Hargrove is not one of those musicians. He is sophisticated, yes, and capable of playing some of the most intellectual music you’ve ever heard. But as a player he has developed a style of jazz all his own, a style devoid of clichés, tricks, and gimmicks. It is a kind of no-nonsense playing that sets Hargrove apart from so many of his contemporaries: simple, joyous, and free. More than anything else, Roy’s music is comfortable – kind of like a pair of cut-off  pants.

Saturday night marked Roy Hargrove’s second to last show at the Village Vanguard, where they had been booked for two back-to-back weeks. He and his quintet – Justin Robinson on alto-sax, Sullivan Fortner on piano, Ameen Saleem on bass, and Montez Coleman on drums –  played songs that spanned his recording career, mixing selections from his 2008 release Earfood with familiar standards and a few Hargrove originals. The band opened with “Lake Danz,” a lively, up-tempo bop tune with complex lines that barreled fluidly through shifting key centers. Roy’s first solo was a surge of energy, abounding in bluesy phrasing and gospel-derived licks.  Feeding off that energy, Robinson began his alto-sax solo with a series of patterned eighth-note lines that covered everything from squealing upper-register notes to the honking lows. Never stiff or automatic, the patterns in Robinson’s solo created a sizzling musical tension that carried flawlessly into Fortner’s beautifully voiced piano solo.

“Dat Soul,” a medium swinger with a two-beat feel, began with Robinson on sax, playing a lilting melody framed by Coleman’s busy drum work. Robinson burned through the first chorus of his first solo with a series of sixteenth-note runs which, at their fastest, evoked shades of Bird in his prime. Hargrove’s solo, backed only by a walking bass-line and a clapping high-hat, was refreshingly melodic, and used silence (one of the most underrated musical devices) with superb effect. Fortner’s solo was constructed with broken arpeggios and dissonant intervals, creating an ominous vibe that weaved intricately through the song’s lively chord progression.

“Naima’s Love Song,” the first of the set’s two ballads, opened with Fortner’s dreamlike piano intro, which featured a colorful mix of block chords and alternating left-hand/right-hand runs. Fortner’s playing conveyed a feeling of calm yet constantly swirling sound, like an Impressionist painting played through a piano. The intro segued nicely into a medium Latin feel with a popping bass-line and a sizzling, cymbal-driven beat. The rhythm section was in sync on this tune. Each player sounded like a soloist, yet meshed perfectly during the more melodic segments.

The band’s next tune, “Carmen’s Waltz,” featured an impressive bass solo by Saleem, one that made tactful use of poly-note chords, overtones, and time shifting rhythms. Roy took a bluesy solo on this tune, choosing to emphasize the intricacies of his timbre by staying in the lower register of his horn.

Hargrove played the band’s second ballad, the standard “Speak Low,” on Flugelhorn, using an airy and vibrato-less tone for the melody. Hargrove’s Flugelhorn playing, in contrast with his trumpet, was markedly airy and sparse. You could hear the valves of his horn his clicking with each note. He was backed by minimalistic rhythm section, with the base playing infrequent but resonant notes and the drums filling in lightly with brushes and mallets. Hargrove’s solo, over a double-time feel, was economic but expressive, using silence and long notes to add to the mood of minimalism. The song concluded with an unaccompanied trumpet cadenza, which found Hargrove trilling on harmonically rich low note.

The band switched feels with the next tune, “Hot Sake,” which offered up a burning up-tempo groove and a melody consisting of slow, drunken long notes followed by clipped staccato rhythms. Robinson’s sax solo started off in full-gallop, slurring notes together so quickly that some of his eighth-note runs sounded like glissandos. Hargrove took a unique approach to the 300 beats-per-minute tempo, playing with lots of punchy quarter-notes, long notes, and lip slurs. The tension between speed of the song and speed of the solo was astonishing, proof that blisteringly fast tempos do not always require blisteringly fast solos.

The set ended with Sam Cook’s “Bring It On Home to Me,” the closer on Hargrove’s 2008 album Earfood. With its gospel-like strains and freewheeling blues riffs, the song was the perfect ending to a night of fun, loose, and feel-good playing. The song elicited a huge round of applause from the audience, and with the set coming to a close and the audience cheering, the band returned to the stage for an encore. They played “Soulful,” a Hargrove original that opened with a slow, rubato bass solo and ended with the musicians walking around the club, riffing over the R&B groove as they weaved their way through the small, candle-lit tables and vanished into the back room.

There was little to analyze after Hargrove’s performance at the Village Vanguard, no homework to take home after the house lights had come on and the bass player had played his final note. People filed out of the tiny jazz club the same way they would a good house party: with a sense that something fun had happened, that good music was played and good times were had. Whether they listened to jazz was irrelevant, because Hargrove’s music defies categorization. It spans across several genres – funk, R&B, jazz, soul, hip-hop – without cementing itself in any of them. Trying strap it down with labels would be pointless, because it would always find a way to wriggle free. Hargrove’s music just wants to breathe. It wants to be flexible, comfortable and loose – just like a good pair of cut-off pants should be.


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