For as long as I can remember artists have been trying to combine contemporary music with jazz. I’m thinking specifically about hip hop right now, but it applies to contemporary R&B as well. It’s a difficult balancing act. When it’s done well it’s magic. I’m thinking The Low End Theory by A Tribe Called Quest, Reachin’ by Digable Planets, and Shades of Blue by Madlib. The jazz/hip hop combo has been done best when good hip hop artists know what to do with a jazz sample.
It’s not always as successful the other way around. When jazz artists decide to dabble in contemporary there are mixed results. I’m usually skeptical. I’ve heard too many jazz cats with a corny interpretation of what hip hop should sound like or a decent sound with a wack rapper over it. Or both. It’s not always good. It often sounds to me like a jazz artist trying to make a cash grab when he should’ve stayed in his lane. That’s not always the case. The Robert Glasper Experiment has produced some cool music. It helps when you can convince artists like Yasiin Bey, Erykah Badu, Common, Snoop Dogg, and Musiq Soulchild to participate like Glasper did.
Then there’s Roy Hargrove.
Roy Hargrove was a jazz trumpeter born in the wrong era. He was discovered in Texas by Wynton Marsalis in the mid-1980s, moved to New York City for college, and released his first album when he was 21. After spending the 1990s releasing jazz albums and working with the likes of Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson, Joshua Redman, Stanley Turrentine, and Branford Marsalis. Hargrove was gifted with a warm tone powerful enough to cut through any music he was playing, but also the ability to pull back and complement just as skillfully if he had to. More than any jazz trumpet player I’ve heard in the past 30 years, he’s the one who reminds me of the great post-bop jazz artists of the 1960s. Of course I love Miles Davis, but I’ve always felt a kinship with Clifford Brown, and Roy Hargrove is right there with him. I love their tone and style.
I can’t find an exact story of how it happened, but sometime in the late-1990s Hargrove was recruited by the Soulquarians to play trumpet during their Electric Lady sessions that produced D’Angelo’s Voodoo, Common’s Like Water For Chocolate, and Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun, among others. Hargrove contributes to all three albums, but he appears most on Voodoo. When you hear trumpet on “Spanish Joint,” “Send it On,” and “Feel Like Makin’ Love” that Roy Hargrove you’re hearing.
Like I said earlier, the marriage of jazz artist and contemporary can turn ugly if the jazz artist is too rigid about sticking to their ways. They have to meet in the middle. A jazz trumpeter playing a long improvised solo over a hip hop beat sounds contrived. I was not surprised in the least when I was researching for this post and found this quote from Hargrove when asked about playing with the Soulquarians in a 2013 interview:
And it was a lot of fun to be able to put down orchestrations. That’s what they wanted. I believe, especially when you’re playing the funk, you can’t really do too much soloing or put in too many notes. So what they would call “jazzy” wouldn’t [work], you have to lend to more of an ensemble approach. That means playing sparse, you know. Whatever the music might need at that moment as opposed to doing too much. Less is more.https://lifeandtimes.com/roy-hargrove-discusses-hip-hop-the-soulquarians-and-more
Shortly after his time with the Soulquarians, Hargrove created his own collective called The RH Factor and brought along several other members to work with him. The RH Factor released two albums – 2003’s Hard Groove and 2006’s Distractions – that still stand to me as the gold standard for bringing together jazz, R&B, hip hop, soul, and funk. It helps when you’ve got musicians as talented as the Soulquarians and a list of guest vocalists as talented as Common, Q-Tip, Erykah Badu, Anthony Hamilton, Shelby J, and yes, D’Angelo.
That finally bring us to today’s track. “Bullshit” is the ninth track from The RH Factor’s second album Distractions. It’s the perfect showcase for D’Angelo’s vocal freakery and Hargrove’s improvisational skills. The grimy mid-tempo groove and record scratching set the tone for the two of them to play multiple roles on the track. You hear D’Angelo singing lead and providing all of the background vocals on nearly all of his tracks. What you don’t always hear is a trumpet player pulling double duty on a track like this. On one hand you have Hargrove’s mellow sound adding to the texture of the background. That sets the stage for Hargrove to break free of his “less is more” mantra and spend most of the track laying down a muted trumpet solo over the foundation laid by D’s vocals and his own background trumpet. It’s mellow. It’s innovative. It’s just goddamn cool. I don’t know how else to describe it. When I grew up as a trumpet player this is the kind of music I dreamed I’d be able to one day play. It takes elements of every genre of music that I love, mixes them all together, and it comes out cool as hell without sounding the least bit contrived.
As you may know, Roy Hargrove spent the last 14 years of his life – including the time he was recording this track – on dialysis fighting kidney failure. He passed away from a heart attack brought on by kidney failure in 2018 at the age of 49. A brilliant musician and creative mind gone way too soon. I wish I could say I appreciated him more when he was alive, but my jazz rebirth and explosion of it in my vinyl collection in the past few years led me back to him. I’d love to see someone press Distractions and Hard Groove on vinyl so I could spin them and show Mr. Hargrove his due respect.
And just like that, another week is over. I celebrate my first 20 D’aily posts officially in the books. I’m already only a week from being halfway there! I feel like I just got started. Looks like we’re going to start off week five of the D’aily right where I’m leaving off today. Monday’s song is another track with Roy Hargrove’s trumpet prominently featured. Good. I have an affinity for trumpet players and Hargrove was one of the best. May he rest in peace. Have a great weekend, y’all.