Hargrove has not dissapointed since finishing his musical studies at Berklee and New York’s The New School. In the last 20 years he has come out with 17 albums which either bare his name or he was the band leader. Looking up his Wikipedia page, I notice he turns 40 this year. And he is still considered not yet at his prime. Ahh the refreshing expectations of refined excellence from the Jazz world.
I first got acquainted with Roy Hargrove in the late 90′s with some live performance recordings, but he came onto my map in a very big way after his alternative band The RH Factor‘s first release ‘Hard Groove’ in 2003, and then subsequent releases ‘Strength’ (2004) and ‘Distractions’ (2006). Since that time, I’ve been following all of Roy’s releases with great interest. I had the pleasure of watching Roy perform alongside Herbie Hancock and Michael Brecker in Hong Kong in 2003 for Hancock’s ‘Directions in Music‘ album tour. Then I saw Roy again in 2007 at the Toronto International Jazz Festival for his ‘Nothing Serious‘ album.
Needless to say I came upon Hargrove’s 2008 album ‘Earfood’ with great anticipation.
The album was hit-and-miss for me. Maybe because I’ve become so familiar with Roy Hargrove’s sound and style, that half of the songs on this album slipped through my eardrums without registering much of any kind of impression.
The first two songs on ‘Earfood’ seem like pointless preamble. He takes two whole songs to set the tone of the album, like a maitre d’ taking an unnecessary amount of time settling you into a comfortable chair. Instead, most people who have ever heard a Roy Hargrove song before already know what kind of sound to expect, and so spending two songs re-educating us on something we already know is a waste of time.
The songs that I did sit up and take notice to were: Strasbourg/St. Denis, Starmaker, The Stinger, Mr. Clean, Style, and Do Wisdom The Prize. Thats 6 out of 13 songs on the album.
Not to say that other songs were unenjoyable, they were. But those other songs are exactly what we’ve come to know and love from Roy Hargrove. Each of the songs are a reenforcement of his brand and persona. The slow, pulsating, intoxicating, smooth sounds of Hargrove’s flugelhorn and the tight assemblage of his band are well appreciated. The problem I have with those other 7 songs is that they don’t offer anything new about Roy.
The 6 songs that I did find intriguing were worthy of mention only because Hargrove allowed his group to be more adventurous with the melody and its arrangement. The use of alternative chords and sounds not normally found in Roy Hargrove’s music were refreshing. It also should be noted that I found the musician that stole the show on the album was Justin Robinson on Alto Sax; not Hargrove himself.
For those that are not familiar with Roy Hargrove, he is perhaps the most accessible of contemporary Jazz’s authentic pioneers, meaning, his style of jazz can be understood or appreciated by the mainstream/non-jazz listener, while still being true to jazz’s form. His music, as it is in this album and on all his albums of the last 10 years, is a modern return to Modal Jazz, the style of jazz made famous by Miles Davis and his ‘Kind of Blue‘ album. Highly melodious, with a pulsing syncopation.
The result is highly pleasurable music, which I guess supports the aptly-named album title ‘Earfood’.
I however, have two bones to pick with my beloved Roy Hargrove, and both pertain to his branding.
The first issue of branding comes from Hargrove’s music. While I understand that a musician, in the process of becoming better known and creating a following, should create a ‘brand’ of music he/she is known for, there is something to be said about growth, experimentation, maturity, and also the occasional change in musical direction. Roy Hargrove is very obviously trying to walk in the footsteps of Miles Davis, but Hargrove has to realize that part of what made Miles Davis such a giant of jazz is not only that he is the highest-selling jazz musician of all time by popularizing modal jazz, but that Miles Davis had the courage, vision, and endurance to shift at 90 degree angles into different musical frontiers (Bebop to Modal to Fusion and back again.) Roy Hargrove has turned heads with the progressive jazz-funk-soul-hiphop sounds of The RH Factor, but the question I come back to listening to ‘Earfood’ is, “Roy, where are you taking us with this?” I’m just hoping that Hargrove’s musical brand can be known as one of evolving and pioneering contemporary modal versus re-playing/maintaining a path of modal jazz we’ve gone through before.
The second issue about branding I have with Roy Hargrove deals with the visual aesthetic. Again, very much trying to emulate Miles Davis in all things look & feel, Roy Hargrove is like the visual incarnation of the Miles Davis from the late 50′s and early 60′s. I sometimes feel that Hargrove tries too hard, or spends too much of his attention on his and his band’s look rather than his and his band’s sound. The thing with Jazz history is that it has been littered with numerous memorable personalities. While many had aesthetic trademarks — a special beanie hat, square-rimmed glasses, a pair of sun glasses, etc. — there personalities were first known for the music, and not their eccentric looks. And these musicians didn’t consciously choose to be characterized by a certain look. They were too into their music to bother with thinking about trend-setting style. The only jazz musician who really did fuss about his looks was Miles Davis. Roy Hargrove is no Miles Davis yet.
Miles Davis VS. Roy Hargrove
The other thing is that Roy Hargrove is trying to play into his style, like the way he dresses and presents himself is a package with his kind of music. As if everyone who listens to him should be the kind of ‘cool cat’ that always loves to wear grey suits and black narrow ties and fedoras. Roy Hargrove is not only trying to brand himself and his music, he is trying to brand an entire genre of jazz. Just stop it Roy. Focus on the music and the rest will work itself out.
Well, ‘Earfood’ in its totality is a very listen-able album, and perhaps a cd I could give as a gift to a non-jazz listener. But I hope Roy Hargrove’s next album will rise up to the standards that both him and I have set.
Watch Roy Hargrove perform one of the songs from ‘Earfood’ below!
One of the wonderful new finds in so many months has been Brian Blade’s newest album, Season of Changes. Admittedly this is the first of Brian’s albums that I’ve had a chance to get my hands on, but the music he and The Fellowship Band produce is exactly what I would expect from him: music that has a candidly contemporary tempo, delving into deep tonal moods and enriched by phrasing that characterizes the definition of today’s jazz.
Brian has been playing with all the major voices that have shaped the current movement in popular contemporary jazz. I first noticed Brian Blade when he drummed for Joshua Redman in most of Joshua’s recordings, including the influential Momentum and Freedom in the Groove albums starting in the mid nineties. I then listened intently as he worked with such rising stars as Kurt Rosenwinkel and jazz statesmen such as Kenny Garrett and Wayne Shorter. It was almost expectant relief when I finally found an album with Brian’s own name on it. (Note: Brian Blade has 3 other previous albums, Brian Blade Fellowship <1998>, Perceptual <2000>, Friendly Travelers <2007>)
True to his heritage and experience, the music found in Season of Changes has a little bit of everyone he’s played with and admired. The song Return of the Prodigal Son brings John Coltrane into the twenty-first century, whimsically playing with the fantasy of what John Coltrane would sound like if he had continued to live and perform into the present day. Omni is another such songs that is set squarely from the Trane-era avant-garde/free jazz heritage, however I feel it pays much homage to Kenny Garrett’s work, another contemporary jazz giant. Most Precious One (Prodigy), Season of Changes, Stoner Hill and Rubylou’s Lullaby stride straight into the best of the more progressive contemporary jazz coming out from today’s young pioneers. You can hear Brian’s direction in these songs more clearly as he presents to the listener a clear, contemporary tempo and invites the rest of The Fellowship Band to join in the discussion. It is in these songs that you hear remnants of Brad Mehldau from Jon Cowherd on piano, and where Kurt Rosenwinkel takes the lead on electric guitar, you get a very clear sense that they’ve gone through these motions before, and they know exactly where they want the sound to go.
Support-Instrument Band Leadership and “Foreground Ambient” Music
The one word that continually enters my mind as I listen to Brian Blade’s music is “Ambient”, but not the ambience we associate with ‘ambient jazz’ or ‘elevator music’. I feel Brian’s music demands the ambience to take the foreground, requiring the listener to be submerged in the music, versus classic ambience that can be left in the background as an afterthought. This music is made for sitting in your living room with a 5-speaker surround-sound stereo system and turning it up just a little too loud, so you can be enveloped in the layers of sound.
One reason why I believe Brian can make this type of music is because of the structure of The Fellowship Band. Unlike other groups where the band leader is often the lead instrument, Brian Blade as the drummer leads from behind and sets a language that is then built upon layer-upon-layer by the other musicians. So when the direction shifts, you hear it as an under-swelling of change in the feel and phraseology of music. This is in high contrast from lead-instrument-band-leader structures, where the shifts in musical direction are nakedly audible. With Brian leading from behind and deep underneath, the movement of the music feels more subtle and in concert, hence my feeling of foreground-ambience. Another analogy I have for the difference between lead-instrument and support-instrument leadership is much like front-wheel versus rear-wheel drive. Front wheel drive has a faster response rate, acceleration rate and is more agile in its moves, but rear-wheel drive has a smoother acceleration and transition, making for a more pleasant ride.
This foreground-ambience I feel is inherent with many support-instrument band-leadership structures. Brad Mehldau’s leadership on piano or Dave Holland’s leadership on bass are examples that come to mind.
Discussing music organizational structures just indulges the music & leadership junkies in me. Regardless how you listen to it, Brian Blade and The Fellowship Band has got their equation down right, and will enthrall any jazz listener. I for one look forward to Brian’s next album.
May and June were extraordinary months for music in Beijing. In addition to the 9-Gates Jazz Fest (among others, Mike Stern performed this year), in the following month we were blessed with a very rare performance by Jazzanova.
For those that have never heard of Jazzanova, they are a collective of 6 German DJs. Based in Berlin, this group is one of the foremost proponents of the nu-jazz and jazz house styles of music. That’s right. DJs.
Only one of the six DJs (Alexander Barck) made it to Beijing to spin for us one night this past June. This tour was primarily to feature a singer Jazzanova’s record label, Sonar Kollectiv, signed and produce, Clara Hill. Held at Beijing’s relocated Yugong Yishan club, the night was filled with sweet tunes and really, really hip people.
How do you describe nu-jazz/jazz house? It is the culmination and answer to anyone that has ever tried to conquer jazz fusion, or jazz and funk, or jazz and hip hop, or jazz and electronica. It is the next evolution of what electronic instruments and the synthesizer have done to alter the trajectory of jazz in the past two decades. From Herbie Hancock’s first encounter with a synthesizer in Miles Davis’ band and then immortalized the ‘retro’ synthesizer sound of the 80′s, to the wide-spread use of Fender Rhodes pianos today in such popular bands like Soul Live and electric guitars of Pat Metheny, electronic-based jazz music is here to stay and will only get more intricate.
DJs can do marvelous things with jazz, things that traditional jazz musicians have been less than successful in doing themselves with their original instruments. Artists like Joshua Redman, Roy Hargrove, Stefan Harris and Marcus Miller have really pushed their art towards an electronic vibe feel. Yet the cross-over to mainstream understanding and popularity has been difficult. DJs have a totally different set of tools they can work with, as the turn table and the mixer allows them to sample multiple sounds all at once. While jazz musicians create original source materials of any form or shape, DJs use this material in combination with any number of other source materials to create their music. Nu-Jazz DJs like Jazzanova have a special skill in choice of jazz source materials.
Jazzanova is not alone in this frontier. From France we have the famous St. Germain, who is heavier on mixing Jazz with House music. We have 4hero and Bugz in the Attic both from the UK, who are highly influenced with House and Hip Hop. Nujabes and Jazztronik, both from Japan have been producing absolutely amazing albums that can only come with the Japanese’s continued patronage of Jazz and Japanese Hip Hop.
The level of mastery these DJ groups have to have for their craft, on top of which the depth and breadth of knowledge they must possess in music history and theory, is astounding. To be able to confidently select samples from Jazz and Hip Hop, Funk and Soul, House and Drum & Bass and mix them together for the perfect sound can only be described as genius.
When I first heard Jazzanova several years ago, it changed my Jazz music obsession forever. Exploring the different type of Nu-Jazz DJs coming out from different parts of the world, and watching them collaborate has been extremely exciting.
Indeed, while this is still a new and very niche music that bisects a multitude of musical genres, I believe it is one powerful and rising movement that will come into its own prominence.
Most definitely this is still another new definition of Jazz. It will not replace jazz tradition as the embodiment of Jazz, but it certainly will add to the conversation, create a new dynamic for action-reaction among jazz musicians, and perhaps catapult jazz back into the mainstream hearts of music lovers.