Roy Hargrove plays it cool at Blues Alley
By Michael J. West,
There’s a reason the “hard bop” style has remained so popular in jazz since the 1950s. It represents a certain timeless kind of cool: in dress, in bearing, in attitude and in the music itself. Trumpeter Roy Hargrove, 42, is a great standard-bearer of hard bop, and at Blues Alley on Tuesday night he and his quintet were a living portrait of that cool. More often than not, though, the outward cool contrasted with that of the music.
Hargrove was the sharp-dressed dude — expensive gray blazer over solid yellow slacks and shirt, plus fedora and sunglasses. To look at him, barely acknowledging the audience, was to see someone too hip for the room. But to hear him was exactly the opposite. He was an emotional but restrained player from the opening cooker (“Stinger”) onward, hinting at more flash than he actually exhibited. And Hargrove’s fourth-wall reserve broke with a sung performance of the ballad “Never Let Me Go,” featuring an uneven, occasionally hoarse warble that was still a warm companion to his mellow flugelhorn.
Similarly, the besuited, bespectacled alto-saxophonist Justin Robinson belied his conservative appearance. He was the most aggressive band member, cutting loose on “Turn ’Em Off” with a rapidly unfurling line, then adopting a blues fervor that he all but spat out defiantly on “Waltz for Carmen.” The latter also featured a rare solo — dense and showy — by pianist Sullivan Fortner, the band’s least-conspicuous member despite his purple outfit. Bassist Ameen Saleem often seemed relaxed to the point of detached, but a fierce gleam in his eye showed his razor-sharp focus — as did his gripping, dynamic solo on “Antigua.” Only drummer Quincy Phillips was as he appeared — his suave, ebullient energy pulling the band along on Hargrove’s soul groove “Strasbourg/St. Denis.”
Group interplay was also a key element. “The Song Was” was a hot chase between Phillips and Robinson, running like wild jackrabbits, with Saleem and Fortner spurring (if not goading) them on with relentless swing. Hargrove’s job was to punctuate the soloists at regular intervals with a few well-chosen notes. But if Hargrove didn’t run the race himself, the authority — the coolness — of his short phrases and his very presence made it perfectly clear who was running the show.
West is a freelance writer.