Photo: Deneka Peniston (Shore Fire Media)

Keyon Harrold: The Mugician

A strong trumpeter puts together a potpourri of jazz, soul, hip-hop, strings, and even reggae with imagination and some daring.

Like nearly every jazz musician of his generation, Keyon Harrold was schooled in the straight-ahead jazz tradition but has a rich engagement with popular music, particularly hip-hop. He was born in 1980 in Ferguson, MO, but he is a product of the jazz program at the New School in New York — and of the worldwide music industry, having played with the Count Basie Orchestra, the Roy Hargrove big band, Billy Harper’s group, Common, Mary J. Blige, Maxwell, Eminem, and Rihanna (among others).

Harrold’s debut came in 2009 on Criss Cross, guaranteeing it would be a fairly tame, straight jazz outing: six originals, Horace Silver’s standard “Peace”, and a version of “Amazing Grace”, featuring Marcus Strickland on saxophones, a nice rhythm section, clean production. Promising but nothing striking.

Eight years later, Harrold has come through with a recording that is altogether more distinctive and contemporary, one that seems to reflect his range of musical interests. It contains some jazz, to be sure, but a dozen tracks feature vocals of one kind or another on eight tracks: found speech (a voicemail from the leader’s mom), mock news reports, singing, and rapping. The purely instrumental tracks are not swinging or standards but, rather, atmospheric groove tunes of various stripes that act as a tacked-on echo (“Lullaby”), interlude (“Ethereal Souls”), or coda (“Bubba Rides Again”).

The stylistic range is wide, though all the music is generally in the realm of soul and hip-hop. For example, “Stay This Way” begins as a kind of slow jam romance tune, except Bilal sings it with a wide range of idiosyncrasy, from a whisper to a snarl — accompanied by the leader’s heraldic trumpet but also by some distorted organ. Then, boom, incomes Chris Dave on drums playing a super-hip-hop groove as Bilal plays call-and-response with background vocalists. Rapper Big K.R.I.T. takes a laid-back verse in the middle, and the tune goes out on Harrold riding above the groove, which is somehow slick and quirky at the same time. It is marvelous and unlike just about anything.

How much of
The Mugician is like that?

“Her Beauty Through My Eyes” is a floating melodic groove that sets up Pharoahe Monche for a slick rap verse (“She liked West Coast Meade Circle and Ice Cube / Glenlivet with one circular ice cube”), then we get an instrumental chorus that features Harrold singing background stuff and some hip chords from pianist Shedrick Mitchell. But, whatever ice cubes you’re rocking, this isn’t a very special piece of hip-hop or soul.

More successful is the title track, set up by a monologue by guest Josh David Barrett but really lifted by the driving arrangement, which uses Marcus Strickland’s bass clarinet and gives Harrold a great platform before turning into a reggae song for Barrett. It shifts again to make space for a Mitchell piano solo, then returns to the reggae hook. I also love the track that includes Harrold’s classmate, Robert Glasper, as well as singer Jermaine Holmes and Georgian Anne Muldrow. The pulse throbs and the trumpet solo is set amidst a quirky arrangement of wordless voices. Glasper enters under the out chorus and takes over the pulse as the rest of the groove fades out, turning the track into something else, something lyrical. Both of these performances, like “Stay This Way”, are marked by daring decisions in the arrangement.

A bit more conventional is “Circus Show”, featuring a vocal by Gary Clark, Jr. that might remind you of the classic “Compared to What” by Les McCann and Eddie Harris. Chris Dave, again, makes it with his drumming.

Several tracks on
The Mugician use a string section as a forceful part of the ensemble. “MB Lament” is built on a memorable bass line, and the strings are the farthest thing from a sweetener — they jab and parry with Harrold during his solo. “Voicemail”, which opens the records, has the band and the strings build to a climax under a recording of Harrold’s mom and a set of voices. There are also a couple of short pieces that work as topical/political rants. “When Will It Stop” is a setting for a monologue by Guy Torry arguing that “if you’re gonna say ‘All Lives Matter’, you can’t exclude black lives”. Agreed. But the tune isn’t anything more than the monologue alone. “Broken News” is a fake, dystopian (but all-too-real) newscast.

The impression by the end of The Mugician is that of a musician whose tastes and talents are strong. This is a particular strain of creative American music in 2017 — not just straddling boundaries between jazz, soul, and hip-hop (and other styles too: rock and gospel and more, depending on how carefully you listen) but generally obliterating those boundaries. These are musicians who stride across all the music. And that is great. But The Mugician also feels various rather than focused. Harrold makes, for example, a cool statement about what a jazz sextet can sound like today with “Bubba Rides Again”, but he doesn’t develop that idea. He’s cooking with reggae gas on one tune, ’60s soul-jazz on another, hip-hop here and there.

My hunch is that Keyon Harrold has a better, deeper album coming soon. This potpourri is fun to listen to, almost a three-ring circus, with compelling tunes, interludes, joyful material, and a political angle. It is musically daring at times and accomplished always. But it hides or maybe just obscures what I’m betting is a clear musical personality. The talent here demands to be heard more clearly.

RATING 6 / 10