“This ain’t rapping, this is street bop / Now get up off you ass like your seat’s hot.”
— Nas “Made You Look”
It was always a natural coming together. The music of “old southern men full of northern pain” (holla back bruh Umar) and the music of their angry-ass offspring (once removed) — both with rhythmic names that seemed to mirror each other (bebophiphopbebophiphop). And true indeed there were cats who claimed that they could be the architects of this — Guru’s Jazzmatazz (1993), A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory (1992), and Digable Planets’ Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space) (1993). Even the jazz cats tried to get in the mix — Miles weighed in from the grave with Doo-Bop (who the hell told him to work with Easy Mo Be on his last tracks?), Branford Marsalis got down with his alter-ego Buckshot Lefonque, M-Base veterans Greg Osby and Steve Coleman put their good foots forward, respectively, with 3-D Lifestyles and A Tale of Three Cities (with the Five Metrics). Most of these latter efforts were heart-felt and good intentioned, but with the exception of Osby’s “Mr. Gutterman”, most of them fell flat.
From the time most cats heard Lil’ Roy blow on Diamond in the Rough (1989), there was always the sense that he was “the one”. Listening to Roy Hargrove and the rest of them Neo-bop young lions (Marc Cary, Antonio Hart, Gregory Hutchinson, and Rodney Thomas Whitaker) flow on Miles’s “Milestones” and Hargrove’s original “Caryisms” (from 1992’s The Vibe) you got the sense that hip-hop had in fact already blessed the jazz gods. There have been rumors for more than a decade that Roy was doin’ a hip-hop recording (I was riding in the Integra with C-Dub talking about it months before Race Matters dropped), but Roy paced himself, paid tribute to the elders (With the Tenors of Our Time, 1994 and Parker’s Mood, 1995), got his Afro-Cuban vibe on (Habana, 1997), and sought out some fellow travelers, namely D’Angelo, who made Roy’s flow a big part of his brilliant (don’t hate it was brilliant) Voodoo. Roy Hargrove Presents The RH Factor: Hard Groove (Roy hard groove, get it?) is the product of that patience.
Of course Roy’s effort comes with some drama — the classic jazz artist “sells out” to cross over crap. Critics tuned out Miles’s On the Corner– era recordings simply because they felt he wasn’t living up to the standard he set for himself with classics like Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain (there’s some correlation in the current talk about Tiger’s slump). Thirty-years later we now understand that Miles was both raising the bar for jazz artists’ commercial success and diligently trying to get the music back to the social and cultural spaces that birthed it and out of the conservatory and concert hall. And oh yeah, if you hadn’t noticed the shit was bangin’. Same goes for cats like Donald Byrd, Lou Donaldson, Grant Green, and others who always understood that the best jazz music — really the most useful — was the jazz music that moved your ass, without trading off on artistic innovation. The genre’s monthly bible, Billboard anticipated (or instigated) critical discomfort with Hargrove’s “funk” effort by querying a panel of legendary sidemen like drummer Roy Haynes and bassist Reggie Workman about Hard Groove. Workman put it best when he asserted that Hargrove was “playing the music of his time. He’s supposed to do that”, adding that, “I did that myself when I was younger, playing the music of my time, R&B. I never recorded it, but I sure played it.” (Billboard, April 2003) And that’s the reality: the 33-year-old Hargrove is quintessential post-Soul — equally at home with the old school (both Miles Dewey and EWF) and the boom-batter that has defined the hip-hop era.
The genius of Hargrove’s Hard Groove is that he chose to broaden perception of contemporary “urban” music by drawing on hip-hop, spoken word, classic funk and Quiet Storm grooves. The core musicians (The RH Factor) on the disc are a loose collective that includes saxophonist Jacques Schwarz-Bart (see Meshell Ndegeocello’s Cookie: the Anthropological Mixtape), keyboardists James Poyser and Bernard Wright (see 1981’s definitive ‘Nard), legendary session guitarist Cornell Dupree, and bassist Reggie Washington. But Roy Hargrove is arguably at the center of a distinct generation of post-soul aestheticians. So it’s not surprising that he could also call on the “guest” talents of Erykah Badu and her boo Common, M-base founder Steve Coleman, D’Angelo, Ndegeocello, and Q-tip.
The opening and title track sounds like it’s right out of the Grover Washington, Jr. songbook. The late saxophonist, who was consistently one of the best-selling jazz artists of the 1970s and 1980s, was a secret indulgence for hard-core jazz artists, who, while acknowledging that Washington was more groove than riff, wished that they could “move the crowd” like he did. The track, written by Bernard Wright, features an angular melody that rescues the track from becoming utterly mundane. The flow on “Hard Groove” is pretty consistent with the majority of the instrumental tracks on the disc like the chunk-funky “Pastor-T” and the fluid “Liquid Sheets” (reminiscent of Donald Byrd’s recordings for the Landmark label in the late 1980s and early 1990s). More interesting are tracks like “Out of Town”, which features Steve Coleman on alto and the sexy-ass “The Joint”, which recalls some of the classic slow jams of folks like Norman Connors and Dexter Wansel.
Hargrove and the RH Factor are at their best, though, when in exchange with some of the guest vocalists. Given Hargrove’s love of hip-hop, the choice to include Common and Q-Tip was a no brainer. However, both appearances are underwhelming, with Common trying to sound too jazzy (like he’s some kind of spoken word poet) on “Common Free Style” and Q-Tip sounding like . . . well, Q-Tip on “Poetry”. Though Tip is one of the most distinct voices in hip-hop, too often when out on the limb without Ali Shaheed’s gentle hand, bruh comes off as just plain annoying. Ms. Badu’s breathy interlude midway through the song transforms it into a cascading gem that recalls so much that was good about her brilliant sophomore effort Mama’s Gun (2000).
Vocalist Stephanie McKay contributes the bluesy “Forget Regret”, as Hargrove follows a strategy that Branford Marsalis (and Norman Conners before him) followed so well on his two Buckshot LeFonque recordings by including some seriously upscale vocal performances from the likes of Tammy Townsend (“Ain’t It Funny”) and a then unknown Frank McComb (“Phoenix”). The same goes for Renee Neuville’s performance on “Juicy” (a song she co-wrote) and Shelby Johnson’s flow on “How I Know”. The true highlights of Hard Groove come via appearances by Anthony Hamilton, fresh off his star-turn with the Nappy Roots on “Po’ Folks”, and the increasingly reclusive D’Angelo. Hamilton opens “Kwah/Home” with a bluesy riff that is very reminiscent of David Peaston’s vocals on Lester Bowie’s “For Louis” (All the Magic, 1983). The song then makes a shift (one of several on the track) into a backbeat groove (bottomed out by Ms. Ndegeocello) that allows Hamilton to do his thing.
But it is Mr. Archer (D’Angelo) who brings out the best in the RH Factor as the collaborators dig deep into the funk bible to retrieve Funkadelic’s “I’ll Stay” from their 1974 classic Standing on the Verge of Getting It On. Brilliant in its own right, the original recording captures a mood best described as a secret mythical jam session that featured the legendary guitarist Eddie Hazel, Isaac Hayes, and Donny Hathaway. In other words, you could smell the funk coming off the vinyl grooves (how Ja Ja put it: “they gonna smell me on this one”) and to their credit, D’Angelo, Hargrove, Bernard Wright, et al, get it right. Much is to be said about D’Angelo just taking his time (he’s helming the groove on a Wurlitzer) and the song clocks in a few seconds short of eight minutes, every bit of it chock full of trunk-funk. Taking as a whole, the RH Factor’s performance of “I’ll Stay” is one of the definitive moments of the so-called neo-soul era, perhaps rivaled only by Badu’s and the Roots’ “You Got Me”, Nedegocello’s “Fool of Me”, Maxwell’s “Ascension”, and of course, D’Angelo’s “Untitled”.
Roy Hargrove is one of the most prolific and innovative jazz artists of his generation. In that regard Hard Groove and the RH Factor may be the start of something special. As good as this disc is, the real proof will come when they head back into the studio and do-again.