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Jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove stays true to his art

The Roy Hargrove quintet plays Sculler’s Jazz Club Friday and Saturday.Mylan Cannon/The New York Times/file 2011

Roy Hargrove might feel at home playing music anywhere, with anyone.

“It don’t matter — gimme a didgeridoo and a kazoo and I'll make it happen,” the trumpeter says, in a telephone interview from his New York home. “I just love to play music, man. It doesn’t matter what format.”

This comes off less like bragging than as earnest, ecumenical enthusiasm. Hargrove’s resume — stacked heavily with small-group jazz work reminiscent of 1960s-era hard bop, but studded with side trips into Afro-Cuban jazz, funky fusion, and big band — bears it out.

His quintet plays Sculler’s Jazz Club Friday and Saturday.


Lauded for a musical exuberance he expressed with precise technical pyrotechnics, Hargrove emerged as a young lion of the scene in the 1990s. Endorsed by Wynton Marsalis, he staked out a place on the border of the neo-classicist movement that felt fresh, even if not boundary-crashing. His thirst for new sounds cued guest spots on records by D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, and Common, and he’s cut two albums with his heavily grooving fusion outfit RH Factor. His most recent album, 2009’s “Emergence,” features the big band he built from scratch.

At age 43, the trumpeter may no longer be the fresh new face of jazz, but he’s not ready to play elder statesman, either. (“I would tell them to listen to Clifford Brown,” he says with a quick laugh when asked what younger musicians could learn from his work.)

Still, while not venturing into “get off my lawn” territory, he does find fault with some of the crop of younger players.

“People are allergic to the swing nowadays, it seems. I wish I knew why,” he muses. “Maybe it has a lot to do with commercialism and trying to make money. You get sidetracked after a while, because you want to make a living doing what you do. But at the same time you’ve got to keep your integrity. I think if you’re true to that, you can’t lose.”


Hargrove’s ongoing project hasn’t so much been about combining musical parts into unexpected shapes, but keeping a healthy musical curiosity and revisiting the conventions of any form with relish.

“I’m going to try to make music out of whatever style it is, being true to the art form itself. If you’re playing funk, stay in the pocket. If you’re swinging, swing — all the way. Play some standards. Play some blues. Play your original stuff. Do it, 100 percent,” he says. “You have to deal with the swing. It’s real. If you don’t deal with that, you’re missing out.”

Hargrove possesses a healthy respect for the traditions of jazz, but he’s not looking to stage a history lesson. His road-honed quintet — including bassist Ameen Saleem, Justin Robinson on alto saxophone, Sullivan Fortner on piano, and drummer Quincy Phillips — is often explosive. His own touch on trumpet remains dexterous and aggressive. And his comfort moving between genres is itself progressive.

“There’s some debate about a lot of the young players being too academic, that they just don’t possess the same kind of fire that the older players had,” observes Eric Jackson, longtime host of WGBH jazz program “Eric in the Evening.”

“You don’t think of him in that sense,” he says of Hargrove. “He’s a fiery musician.”

When asked how his perspective has changed after more than two decades in the business, Hargrove cites the logistics of touring: “The hardest part is traveling there. That’s what they pay you for — going to the airport. That’s really the one thing I’m learning now, trying to keep yourself in shape for that. Like anything, you get better at it as you go, but it doesn’t get any easier.”


Hargrove notes the quintet format offers the chance for a more intimate connection with the audience than when he’s leading his big band.

“With the big band you have to think ahead of everything, because you’ve got 20 people so you’ve got to be ahead of the fires before they start. With a quintet it’s a little more personal,” he says. “I feel out the room and see what they respond to and I just go from there. Any quintet I have is going to have to be diverse, to be able to play any style.”

In the end, it’s all about achieving emotional release, he says. His aim is quite tangible.

“I like to use music as therapy. It makes you feel better. When people come and hear it, they feel better afterward.”

Jeremy Goodwin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.