Roy Hargrove: 10 key performances, from bebop to hip-hop crossovers

The American trumpeter, who has died aged 49, influenced a new generation of jazz artists with his soul and funk fusion

At his final UK performance, at London’s Jazz Café on 9 October, I watched trumpeter Roy Hargrove play with his characteristic bebop intensity and sultry swing. He packed his five-piece band on to the stage and cruised through the funkier numbers from his fusion project, the RH Factor, as well as the straightahead jazz of his more recent work on Earfood, from 2008. There was no sign Hargrove was unwell; his death, on 2 November, was caused by cardiac arrest due to kidney disease.

Hargrove performed in his trademark suit and shades, the snappy dress code that added to his charm as an instrumentalist. His playing was slick, rarely exhibitionist and never individualistic. Seldom taking the microphone, except to thank the crowd for their support – his yearly sold-out performances at the Jazz Café were something of a residency – he let his instrument do the talking. The performance cemented his status as one of the great trumpeters of his generation.

Hargrove combined the jazz tradition with the soul revival and burgeoning hip-hop scene of the 1990s, and collaborated with artists ranging from his mentor Wynton Marsalis and saxophone legend Sonny Rollins to neo-soul stars D’Angelo, Common and Erykah Badu. The soft interlacing of his trumpet lines and horn arrangements on these critically acclaimed and commercially successful neo-soul and hip-hop records laid the groundwork for more recent jazz crossover work by the likes of Kamasi Washington, Keyon Harrold and Robert Glasper.

Though only 49 when he died, Hargrove left a gigantic back catalogue: more than 20 albums as bandleader and more than 50 as a sideman. Here is some of his finest work.

Young Roy, 1991

After being discovered by New Orleans trumpeter and educator Wynton Marsalis, Hargrove studied at the New School in New York and collaborated with saxophonist Bobby Watson. Some of these recordings caught the ear of Sonny Rollins, who invited Hargrove to play on his 1991 album, Here’s to the People. Rollins was so impressed by Hargrove’s mature style that this track is dedicated to the then 22-year-old. His languorous and measured solo offers traces of the upbeat swing that characterises his later playing. “Having been fortunate to play with the super, super trumpet stars of the day, I found it inconceivable that this new kid on the block could be in that class, could be that good,” Rollins wrote on Facebook on 3 November. “He was. He is, and will always be.”

Gettin’ to It, 1995

Bassist Christian McBride was a long-time collaborator of Hargrove’s. On the title track of McBride’s 1995 debut record, you can hear the funk influences creeping into Hargrove’s trumpet playing, favouring groove and feel as well as technical expertise. McBride tweeted in tribute to Hargrove: “I have no words over the loss of my dear brother of 31 years. We played on a lot of sessions together, travelled a lot of miles together, laughed a lot together, bickered on occasion – and I wouldn’t change our relationship for anything in the world. Bless you, Roy Hargrove.”

Mr Bruce, 1998

Roy Hargrove: Mr Bruce – video

In 1998, Hargrove won his first Grammy, for best Latin jazz for Habana. The leap from the American jazz tradition to the complex time signatures and speed of Latin jazz on Habana showcased Hargrove’s versatility as composer and player, most of all on the lightning-fast lilt of Mr Bruce.

Green Eyes, 2000

The new century heralded Hargrove’s movement away from the jazz tradition he’d spent two decades exploring. Recruited by drummer Questlove to join his supergroup Soulquarian, he wrote and arranged on sessions for artists such as D’Angelo, Erykah Badu and Common. On Green Eyes, Hargrove’s trumpet is a soothing response to Badu’s opening in the style of Billie Holliday, before taking the lead on the hazy groove of the second half. It is a 10-minute introduction to the jazz underpinnings of the neo-soul movement.

Spanish Joint, 2000

D’Angelo: Spanish Joint – video

Hargrove also deconstructs the groove on D’Angelo’s Spanish Joint, taken from the latter’s second album, Voodoo. Hargrove’s Latin jazz influences provide pointed interjections to D’Angelo’s layered harmonies. This subtle back-and-forth exchange holds the composition together.

Time Travelin’ (A Tribute to Fela), 2000

Common: Time Travelin’ (A Tribute to Fela) – video

Another key member of the Soulquarians group was the late hip-hop producer J Dilla. On rapper Common’s fourth album, Like Water for Chocolate, the complex influences of the Soulquarians collide: Hargrove’s solo jazz lines merge with Dilla’s snappy programmed production and Common’s lyrical dexterity to salute Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti.

The Poet, 2001

Directions in Music (Live at Massey Hall): The Poet – video

After his intensively productive neo-soul years, Hargrove returned to the jazz tradition. He won a second Grammy for best jazz instrumental album on this collaboration with Herbie Hancock and Michael Brecker, which celebrated the work of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Hargrove showcases a softer side on the Poet, harmonising with saxophonist Brecker to create a ballad-like atmosphere and putting his own spin on the piercing individualism of Davis’ playing.

Poetry, 2003

The RH Factor: Poetry – video

Injecting his experience of the neo-soul scene into a solo project, Hargrove formed the RH Factor – a funk-soul crossover featuring Badu, Common and rapper Q-Tip. On Poetry, Hargrove expertly uses the space between his playing to accommodate Badu and Q-Tip’s interlocking lines, creating one of his most popular tracks to date.

Strasbourg St Denis, 2008

Roy Hargrove: Strasbourg St Denis – video

The true marker of immortality in jazz is to write a standard. These standards – penned by the likes of Cole Porter, Gershwin and Coltrane – become the core repertoire of musicians in training before being endlessly reinterpreted. While Strasbourg St Denis may not yet appear in the standards books, its infectious melody and scope for challenging solos has seen it become a fixture of jazz jams and rehearsals everywhere.

Ms Garvey, Ms Garvey, 2009

Roy Hargrove Big Band: Ms Garvey, Ms Garvey – video

Early in his career, Hargrove made a name for himself as a member of the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band, drawing comparisons to the titular trumpeter for his dextrous playing. After establishing himself as a solo artist, however, Hargrove returned to the big band format only for his final album Emergence. Here, he is a confident leader of the 19-piece ensemble, his experience arranging for the neo-soul crowd condensed into the rollicking swing of Ms Garvey, Ms Garvey. It’s a complex number, with Hargrove shining in the background harmonies but leaving ample room to showcase his band, in particular Jason Marshall on baritone saxophone.


Ammar Kalia

The GuardianTramp

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