Friday, February 10, 2012

Roy Hargrove Big Band Review, Wall Street Journal

Photo by Alan Nahagian

Roy Hargrove Big Band
The Blue Note 
131 W. Third St., (212) 475-8592 
Through Sunday

Does Roy Hargrove's career validate the entire "Young Lions" trend of the '80s and '90s? Or does it prove the opposite? The trumpeter was barely 20 when his first album appeared in 1989, and he was the most extreme of the young lions (who included Wynton Marsalis, Joshua Redman and Nicholas Payton) in other ways, too, especially in terms of the way his music seemed to be about sheer chops: playing faster, louder, higher and with amazing accuracy. Yet it wasn't until he reached his 30s and acquired a little more seasoning that Mr. Hargrove proved he knew what to do with all that technique. Currently leading his dynamic 19-piece big band the Blue Note, Mr. Hargrove is one of the most exciting and entertaining players you can experience right now—even when he's singing, an area where he has zero chops but warmth and soul to spare.

Back in the day, it was a given in the jazz world that when an instrumentalist/composer assembled a big band, he was trying to expand his artistic canvas as well as his audience; surely Dizzy Gillespie, the spiritual father of all modern jazz trumpeters, attained both ends with the many big bands he led over his long career. The orchestral format gave Gillespie greater scope both for more serious works, like "Perceptions" and "Gillespiana," and made him more of a pop star, particularly with crowd-pleasing antics like "He Beeped When He Should Have Bopped."

With Mr. Hargrove's big band, too, the stakes are considerably higher—and larger—than with a standard-sized combo. As his opening set on Tuesday, Mr. Hargrove played 10 selections, most of which are heard on his latest (and the big-band's first) album, "Emergence" (2009). Possibly the heaviest—and also, perhaps surprisingly, among the most entertaining—was Frank Lacy's "Requiem." It began and ended like a 1970s nod to classicism, in the vein of Woody Herman's treatment of Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man," with an introduction that featured four flutes and baritone sax. Then, in the central melody, it got darker and heavier still, the deep, piercing sound of the trumpets and trombones recalling the horn writing on John Coltrane's "Africa/Brass" album. Bruce Williams played a Coltrane-esque solo on alto, even as pianist Sullivan Fortner seemed to be going out of his way to replicate the angular, spiky dissonances of McCoy Tyner.

Not everything the big band played was so ambitious. Mr. Hargrove opened with a light, rhythmic treatment of "The Lamp Is Low" (one of several band works that he's also played with his quintet), which turned Ravel's "Pavane pour une infante défunte" into an easy breeze, and thus made classical music and modern jazz accessible at the same time. "Ms. Garvey, Ms. Garvey" was a bright bouncer by baritone saxophonist Jason Marshall and "Brian's Bounce" was a choppy bopper of a blues that gave solo space to all the other trumpeters, including Greg Gisbert (from Maria Schneider's Orchestra) and Tonya Darby (of Diva).

Then there were two features for vocalist Roberta Gambarini: As always, the word to describe her is "flawless." She sings complicated orchestral parts with an ease that part-reading horn players must envy. She's always miraculously in tune, with a beautiful sound that's rich and full. Yet when she sings, I never feel like I'm listening to a human being—somehow perfection sounds incomplete. She shined in Spanish on "La Puerta" (it helps that I don't speak the language), yet on Cole Porter's "Everytime We Say Goodbye," she never gave the slightest indication that she might be the least bit sad about having to say goodbye.

The set's other vocal, by the leader himself, arrived on "September in the Rain." Over a Basie-style shuffle, Mr. Hargrove cannily essayed the melody on muted trumpet, which made it sound more voice-like. It's a perfect set up for his own vocal: As a singer, he can barely string two notes together, but he knows how to goose a crowd with some call-and-response scatting with the band (the kind that Dizzy learned from Cab Calloway), and darned if he doesn't make you feel good, even if it's September, even if it's raining, or even if it's a spate of tropical weather in early February.

- Will Friedwald, Wall Street Journal

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