Without making too much of a fuss about it, jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove has become an unofficial member of the Soulquarians, the esteemed team of producers and artists responsible for some of the most soulful hiphop and R&B of recent times. He lent his confident playing to high-school chum Erykah Badu for both her seminal debut, Baduizm, and its studio follow-up, Mama’s Gun. He’s on Common’s breakthrough CD, Like Water for Chocolate, and on D’Angelo’s classic Voodoo, for which he provided arrangements up front and tour support later. So Hard Groove, the new R&B/hiphop project he’s put out under the name the RH Factor, is less a surprise than an expectation met.
Sonically, this outing is solidly in the Soulquarian tradition. It’s got a street-level bump courtesy of Russ Elevado, a superb engineer who has provided aural splendor for albums by the Roots, Bilal, and D’Angelo. He deepens the bass, sharpens the beats, and cunningly exploits the natural timbres and textures of the acoustic instruments; and his awareness of space and special effects gives Hard Groove a rich three-dimensionality that sounds marvelous on headphones. As he did on both Like Water for Chocolate and Voodoo, Elevado toys with Hargrove’s trumpet, distorting its sound with filters or giving it shimmering qualities that evoke a synth guitar (“Out of Town”) or a mini-Moog (“Common Free Style” and “The Joint”).
To make Hard Groove, Hargrove convened 31 musicians at the legendary Electric Lady Studios, exploiting his ties to the hiphop nation to assemble some of rap and R&B’s most revered names. Along with Common, Badu, and D’Angelo, Hargrove brought aboard Q-Tip, Me’Shell Ndegeocello, keyboardists Bernard Wright and James Poyser, and veteran R&B session guitarist Cornell Dupree. For the core rhythm section, he called on childhood friend Keith Anderson, the alto sax player, who helped him recruit fellow graduates of the prestigious Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas.
With such a huge guest roster, it would have been all too easy for Hargrove to get lost in the mixor worse, for Hard Groove to devolve into a grandiose mess. But for all its many facets, the album sparkles with clarity and conviction; nothing on it sounds inconsequential. Probably because of his respect for his Soulquarian colleagues, Hargrove has done what many of his mainstream-jazz contemporaries have failed miserably atcome up with a real R&B/hiphop album. Usually, jazz cats approach those genres with superiority complexes, viewing them as lower forms that don’t require high craftsmanship. Or they’ll gussy up the material with effusive improvisations and complex chord changesan approach that usually results in nebulous piffle.
But Hargrove knows howand whento be pithy, and that accounts for much of Hard Groove’s brilliance. When he’s performing hard bop or Afro-Cuban jazz, his improvisations crackle with virtuosity. But here he mostly shows marvelous restraint. He spits fiery, bop-inspired solos on the suspenseful title track and the capricious “Out of Town,” but elsewhere he pares his essays down to melodically savvy epigramsespecially on the ballads. On the sumptuous “Liquid Streets” and “Stroke,” he caresses the melodies like a sensual R&B crooner. On both tunes, he and tenor saxophonist Jacques Schwarz-Bart stick closely to the themes, offering only the slightest of variations, as if performing fugues. The rhythm sections are equally astute, underscoring the horn players with gently shuffling backbeats and pensive accompaniments on piano and organ.
Still, Hargrove brings it hard on the up-tempo cuts, trading in the contoured phrases for concussive jabs. On Anderson’s popping “Pastor ‘T,’” he demonstrates his flair for the funk, spinning out a sidewinding solo that’s initially built on a four-note staccato figure. As his vigorous improvisations gain momentum, he alternates between punchy asides and flaring statements atop skintight rhythms from drummer Jason Thomas and bassist Pino Palladino. Hargrove’s incendiary playing even upstages Common’s ruminative autobiographical rhyming on the house-party jam “Common Free Style”; the trumpeter initiates his solo with edgy funk riffs, then swaggers into a gut-bucket testimonial filled with snappy melodic hooks.
Hargrove’s hiphop excursions are no recent thing: In 1992, with the release of The Vibe, he was one of the first young lions to break out of the Brooks Brothers straitjacket and wear hiphop gear. In performances with his hard-bop quintet, he’ll incorporate hiphop techniques, having drummer Willie Jones III drop head-nodding beats or encouraging bassist Gerald Cannon to propel the ensemble on a forceful, intoxicating groove. And instead of simply trading fours, Hargrove will play cat-and-mouse games with his players; he’ll quote some R&B classicthe Ohio Players’ “Skin Tight” or Parliament’s “Tear the Roof Off the Sucker,” maybeand a band member will reply with another old-school jam, such as Rose Royce’s “Car Wash” or the O’Jays’ “For the Love of Money.” These concerts are prime examples of subversively linking jazz and funk using hiphop ideology.
Likewise, Hard Groove steers clear of the banal, with Hargrove proving to be a genius both at arranging his guest performers and getting the best out of them. D’Angelo turns in one of his finest vocal performances in a poignant rendition of the brooding Funkadelic ballad “I’ll Stay”; following the dirgelike tempo of the original, he sings the disquieting if evasive lyric, about either a man’s commitment to an unfaithful woman or his torment over a lover gone mad, as if he himself were on the brink of a breakdown. Hargrove’s trumpet smears accentuate the grimness of the lyrics toward the end, as D’Angelo belts out a mournful wail.
Badu’s delicate soprano on “Poetry” creates one of the disc’s most magical moments: She comes in almost midway through the song, after Q-Tip’s elegiac rhyming and Hargrove’s trumpet cackles, and her iridescent voice transforms the cool, meditative vibe into pure, shimmering sunshine.
Hargrove brings out stellar performances, too, from relative newcomers Anthony Hamilton and Shelby Johnson, both of whom have toured as backup singers with D’Angelo. In Hamilton, Hargrove found a gritty baritone ideal for conveying the yearning desires of a man wanting to get right with his paramour on the poignant ballad “Kwah.” Hargrove and Schwarz-Bart’s misty harmonies accentuate Hamilton’s confessional wails, and when Hargrove’s trumpet sneaks out front for a brief declarative statement, the soulfulness only intensifies. Equally mesmerizing is the idyllic “How I Know,” which features Johnson’s smoldering alto sauntering through a dreamy arrangement that could easily be mistaken for some lost Ann Peebles track. Lyrically, the song is carefree, sweet soul, but Johnson’s rootsy, seductive growls give it a poetic allure.
Brimming with sincerity, exquisite compositions, and thoughtful performances, Hard Groove isn’t merely a career-defining milestone for Hargrove; it’s a watershed moment for contemporary American black music. By steering resolutely clear of commercial pandering or condescending mimicry, a jazz great has created the first R&B/hiphop masterpiece of the year. CP