Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Latin Scholar

By Ron Wynn

AUGUST 11, 1997:  While it might seem presumptuous or even ridiculous to call a 27-year-old anything a "veteran," trumpet and flugelhorn star Roy Hargrove merits the label. Of the trio of hot young brass players who made their debuts in the '80s--the other two being Wynton Marsalis and Terence Blanchard--he is the youngest and arguably the most stylistically intriguing. Although, unlike Marsalis, he has yet to win (or even be nominated for) a Pulitzer Prize, he has generated a varied and impressive body of work that's faithful to the acoustic jazz/hard bop mode without being slavish or rigidly imitative.

Indeed, Hargrove's 10th release as a leader, the sizzling new Habana (Verve), boasts an achievement that neither Marsalis nor Blanchard can match: mastery of the African-Latin groove. (For all the harmonic innovations required of jazz musicians, the incorporation of African and Latin sounds requires them to meld this harmonic acumen into a rhythmic tapestry that shifts and changes more rapidly than in conventional bop.) Recorded this past January in Italy during a Hargrove appearance at the Umbria Jazz Winter Festival, Habana also marks the recorded debut of the trumpeter's band, Crisol. The ensemble boasts superb front-line saxophonists David Sanchez and Gary Bartz; trombonist Frank Lacy, who proves equally skilled at funky exchanges and intense dialogues; brilliant Cuban pianist Chucho Valdes, one of the founders of the sensational band Irakere; and guitarist Russell Malone, whose playing gives Crisol's sound a soulful texture.

The lineup, a mix of experienced players and emerging newcomers, reflects a trend that has marked Hargrove's projects since his late-'80s debut. Indeed, throughout his career, the trumpeter has sought to balance jazz's past and present. He started early, working with the legendary Dizzy Gillespie while still in high school. By his 16th birthday, Hargrove had won a scholarship to the famed Berklee music school in Boston, where he spent his out-of-class time playing in clubs with such wily masters as drummer Alan Dawson. At 19, far from a polished player, he made his debut on the appropriately named Diamond in the Rough, demonstrating enough raw skills and technique to earn raves for his potential.

Nine LPs later, he's a confident, frequently spectacular player. The early comparisons to Freddie Hubbard remain: Hargrove has a penchant for crackling, upper-register lines, repeated riffs, and torrid tempos, but now he has more range and more fire than almost all of his contemporaries. On earlier releases, he still lacked pacing, precision, and the capability to tell a convincing story. And even as he developed, it still took him a while to learn to temper his prodigious technique with a feel for melody and nuance. His tone, always magnificent, was expressed so vividly and decisively that it became predictable and detached. As a result, some critics considered him representative of the hype and unearned status that they felt characterized "young lions" such as Marsalis.

Since moving from Novus to Verve in the mid-'90s, Hargrove has developed as an artist, and he has also become more judicious about picking projects. The superb Tenors of Our Time in 1994 featured him with several old and new saxophone giants; he adeptly adapted his trumpet and flugelhorn style to fit individual situations and tendencies, from Johnny Griffin's robust and powerful thrusts to Joe Henderson's fluid, light, and explosive solos to Joshua Redman's swinging, sometimes experimental mode. Parker's Mood, a 1995 trio affair that paired him with pianist Stephen Scott and bassist Christian McBride, only solidified his repution as a stylist and as a bandleader. He displayed a sensitivity and command here that made him the standout figure of the trio, despite Scott's relentless phrasing and McBride's always dynamic bottom support. Finally, the critics who had doubted Hargrove now acknowledged him as the real deal.

Even so, the musical strides on Habana come as a bit of surprise. Nothing in Hargrove's immediate background demonstrated his affinity for Latin or Afro-Latin music. Although his mentor Gillespie played in Latin bands for decades and recorded with everyone from Tito Puente to Mario Bauza, Hargrove's basic introduction to the Latin sound came last year when he heard Cuban band Los Van Van during a stay in Havana. He took advantage of the situation and began jamming with the players; in the process, he met percussionists Joe Luis Quintana and Miguel Diaz, both of whom appear on Habana and are now part of Crisol. They and other Cuban musicians gave Hargrove a crash course in the rhythmic darts and turns of their music; he showed them he was a quick learner.

Upon his return to New York, Hargrove continued to expand on his new musical vocabulary. Crisol (Spanish for a crucible in which precious metals are melted) neatly fuses the straight-ahead, surging energy of vintage big bands and small hard-bop units with the shifting grooves that define the best Latin and salsa units. A prime example on Habana is the nearly 12-minute "Mambo for Roy," penned by Valdes. The structure is loose, with plenty of space for Diaz, Quintana, and drummer Horacio Hernadez to keep the texture flowing while Hargrove, Bartz, Sanchez, and Lacy offer crisp, tight, yet soaring solos. With the addition of Valdes' looping, frenetic piano work, it's a first-rate piece--one that adeptly blends musical idioms without watering down individual players' prowess or eviscerating the melody.

Crisol pays homage to a neglected jazz master by covering two Kenny Dorham compositions; "Una Mas" was the title of a brilliant 1963 Blue Note LP that remains shamefully obscure, even in these days of reissue overkill. Hargrove's lead echoes Dorham's original tender treatment, but it packs more upper-register punch. "Afrodisia" is equally dignified, with Hargrove evoking Dorham's melodic abilities throughout his solo.

Lacy's "O My Seh Yeh" opens and concludes the proceedings, giving the trombonist his most intense and most memorable moments in the spotlight. Bartz, Valdes, and Hargrove are the other composers on the collection, with Hargrove's "The Mountains" proving the disc's most introspective selection. Pianist John Hicks and drummer Idris Muhammad make guest appearances on Bartz's "Nusia's Poem," with Hicks emerging as a worthy foil for Hargrove's and Bartz's fervid solos.

While Habana is easily Roy Hargrove's finest release, it's also a significant contribution to the jazz genre. The disc ranks alongside such past Afro-Latin masterpieces as David Amram's Havana/New York, Ray Barretto's The Other Road, and Eddie Palmieri's The Sun of Latin Music--the only difference being that these recordings featured players far older and far more experienced. Hargrove demonstrates his newfound stylistic maturity as a player, along with the requisite confidence as a bandleader and composer. Those who've waited for him to make the same kind of impact as Marsalis and Blanchard can now take notice.

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