“If I were to characterize the 21st century so far, it’s all about various forms of hybridism,” the jazz critic Nate Chinen remarked in an interview with Pitchfork earlier this year. “It’s harder now to draw a line between an experimentalist and traditionalist.” Among key artists like Robert Glasper and Esperanza Spalding, who defined modern jazz’s hybrid sound, is Roy Hargrove, the extraordinary trumpeter who died last Friday at the age of 49.
Hargrove was not simply one of the most dazzling jazz talents of his generation—he was a visionary who worked to fully integrate jazz, hip-hop, and R&B. For this task, he was well-suited. Unlike his genre-bending forbearer, the brooding Prince of Darkness Miles Davis, Hargrove possessed a lightness of spirit that permeated every note he played. He wrote warm, accessible melodies and communicated an aching tenderness while performing them, often on flugelhorn. With a seemingly limitless expressive range, he was equally fluent in the heady, high-octane bop tradition of Charlie Parker and the deeply felt groove of the Soulquarians, the bohemian collective that boasted acts like the Roots, Common, Mos Def, Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, and J Dilla and forged the sound of neo-soul in the late ’90s and early ’00s.
Hargrove began to branch out from the straight-ahead jazz scene around the turn of the century. He contributed to three Soulquarian albums released in 2000: D’Angelo’s Voodoo, Common’s Like Water for Chocolate, and Badu’s Mama’s Gun. In 2003, he formed the RH Factor, a Soulquarian offshoot band that emulsified jazz, funk, hip-hop, and R&B and yielded two stellar albums in Hard Groove and Distractions.
For years, jazz rap derived its identity in large part from the samples unearthed by crate-digging producers like Q-Tip, DJ Premier, and Pete Rock. In the course of his work with the Soulquarians and the RH Factor, Hargrove reimagined the confluence of jazz and hip-hop not as historical and sample-based, but as something more organic. He championed an ambidextrous form of hip-hop that placed a premium on instrumental musicianship, and, in doing so, helped to carve out a lane that is today occupied by a broad swath of artists—from Noname and her producer Phoelix to BadBadNotGood to the To Pimp a Butterfly brain trust of Thundercat, Terrace Martin, and Kamasi Washington.
Hargrove was far from the first jazz musician to dabble in hip-hop. Quincy Jones viewed hip-hop and bebop to be one and the same, and he got Kool Moe Dee and Big Daddy Kane to rap on his 1989 Grammy-winning album Back on the Block. Miles Davis recruited Easy Mo Bee to produce part of his 1992 posthumous album Doo-Wop. Ron Carter played bass on A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory. In 1994, Branford Marsalis and DJ Premier united to form the fusion group Buckshot LeFonque. The collective M-base dared to place an emcee on equal footing with the high-flying free jazz of saxophonist Steve Coleman. What distinguished Hargrove from these musicians was the degree to which he dissolved the fluid boundaries that separate genres from one another. He burrowed himself into the fabric of D’Angelo, Badu, and Common’s music almost to the point of self-effacement.
By 1998, Hargrove had firmly established himself as a lynchpin of modern jazz. That year, he won his first Grammy for his Afro-Cuban jazz album Habana. Also that year, he hit Electric Lady studios with D’Angelo to work on the album that would become Voodoo. Along with Questlove and the Welsh bassist Pino Palladino, Hargrove was there to help D’Angelo evolve the precocious bedroom R&B of Brown Sugar into a weirder, more textured sound. Hargrove perfectly calibrates his own presence on “Send It On,” “Playa Playa,” “Spanish Joint,” and “Feel Like Makin’ Love.” He shadows D’Angelo’s voice with stacked countermelodies and couches himself within the album’s array of loose, quirky grooves; by keeping mindful of D’Angelo’s airy falsetto, Questlove’s relaxed rimshot, and Palladino’s minimalist thump all at once, he subtly imbues the arrangements with both structure and buoyancy.
If D’Angelo, Badu, and Common were the marquee stars, Hargrove was the brilliant character actor who made scenes richer, smarter, and more believable. He follows Badu’s 10-minute “Green Eyes” wherever it goes, whether channeling Louis Armstrong to complement Badu’s speakeasy chanteuse routine or simply padding the song’s lush harmonies. On Common’s “Cold Blooded,” he fires off a salvo of understated staccato accents that adhere to Questlove’s drums like superglue before launching into a well-timed, cathartic swell. “We NEVER gave him instructions: [we] just played [him] the song and watched him go,” Questlove wrote in his Instagram tribute to Hargrove. “He is literally the one-man horn section I hear in my head when I think about music.”
Roy Hargrove circa 2002. Photo by David Redfern/Redferns.
With the RH Factor’s Hard Groove and Distractions, which he described as a “tribute to the music that I grew up listening to,” Hargrove proved himself not only as a capable hip-hop and R&B sideman, but also as an innovative producer and songwriter in those mediums. The legacy he built with the RH Factor is twofold: 1) he gave us two of the only D’Angelo sightings in the 14-year interregnum between Voodoo and Black Messiah; and 2) he conceived an immaculate elemental balance of jazz, funk, hip-hop, and R&B. Hargrove himself retreats to the middle-ground when artists like Q-Tip, Erykah Badu, and Anthony Hamilton enter the fore—though he does take a solo on “Common Free Style,” which crackles with the ecstasy of a jam session hitting its stride. He occasionally jets off on funk excursions ranging from the left-field hijinks of “Out of Town” to the highly explosive “Pastor T,” but for the most part, Hargrove and his band are seldom in any kind of hurry. Rather, they marinate in these diverse genres’ shared musical roots until they are totally immersed in the full tradition and scope of black American music. “With every note, this brother dripped soul,” the trumpet player Nicholas Payton wrote the day after Hargrove’s passing. “In every phrase, he never let you forget you were listening to a Black man playing that horn.”
Roy Hargrove should be remembered in part as a person who, as much as anyone, shaped the intersection of jazz, hip-hop, and R&B, which is today occupied by myriad hip-hop and R&B artists—like Anderson .Paak, Smino, the Internet, Saba, and Nico Segal and the Social Experiment— and by virtually every jazz musician under the age of 45—like Glasper, Spalding, Thundercat, Martin, Washington, Ambrose Akinmusire, Christian Scott, Jacob Collier, and the folks of Snarky Puppy. This intersection is a bustling marketplace of ideas, and Hargrove helped create it. The musical world is freer today because of him.
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