A tour-de-force in hard bop funk and romantic balladry, Roy Hargrove's Earfood stands out as one of the finest musical moments of 2008.
Stunningly consistent in his output of quality art, Roy Hargrove adds to his already impressive discography another fine recording that soothes the soul, arouses the mind, and most importantly, pleases the ears. Firmly anchored by captivating originals and covers, Hargrove’s latest release, Earfood, proves why the talented trumpeter from Dallas, Texas occupies such an esteemed place among modern jazz musicians. Wasting no time in showcasing his fine interpretive skills, Hargrove opens the disc with the searing Cedar Walton number, “I’m Not So Sure”, depositing loads of attitude and funk into a performance eerily reminiscent of the gutbucket soul of Donaldson Toussaint L'Ouverture Byrd II, Freddie Hubbard, and the late Lee Morgan. Leaving space for his talented young pianist Gerald Clayton to give due respect to the vastly underrated Walton, Hargrove resurrects not only the style but the spirit of his jazz heroes. Quite a few esteemed critics have waxed eloquently on Clifford Brown’s influence on Hargrove’s balladry, but on Earfood’s first track, the influence of other jazz greats shines brightly. One can’t help but think about Lee Morgan’s “Sidewinder”, Donald Byrd’s “Slow Drag” or “Black Jack”, or Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay” when listening to Hargrove seductively caress the groove on “I’m Not So Sure”.
Thankfully, the good times keep rolling on Weldon Irvine’s “Mr. Clean” and the propulsive “Strasburg/St. Denis”. Hargrove’s powerful projection of notes on the latter harkens to a time when jazz brought people to the dance floor. Unfortunately, far too many music insiders and outsiders view jazz as introspective art best enjoyed in solitude, but “Strasburg/St. Denis” transports us back to the art form’s funky and communal roots, providing a brief but enjoyable glimpse of those public and private spaces where African Americans danced the night away. Much to my delight, Hargrove grooves hard with the bare essentials: drum, bass, brass, and piano. Every staggered note serves as a reminder that jazz musicians can get their swerve on without plugging in.
Now the previous sentence should not be taken as a slight against Hargrove’s fusion recordings. Without question, the trumpeter’s forays into hip-hop, funk, and soul on his RH Factor series with Verve provided long time fans with a perfect change of pace from the Diamond in the Rough- Moment to Moment era . It ‘s just important to note that the acoustic funk of “Mr. Clean”, “I’m Not Sure”, and “Strasburg” brings the noise as fiercely as its electric predecessors. Much of this can be attributed to the fiery playing of Hargrove and his brilliant pianist Gerald Clayton. Zigzagging through the beat with the rhythmic sense of a gifted drummer, Clayton displays great confidence and skill.
Of course, no Hargrove release would be complete without a few hair raising ballads that induce memories of love lost and love gained. The surreal “Starmaker”, the heartfelt “Joy Is Sorrow Unmasked”, and the hauntingly beautiful numbers, “Divine” and “Speak Low” should definitely please longtime fans enamored with Hargrove’s sentimental side. Not one of these ballads disappoints, yet there’s something particularly moving about “Speak Low”, Hargrove’s ode to his (and my) favorite jazz singer, Sarah Vaughan. On this lush tune, love’s appreciative side shines as he comforts the listener with his colorful tones and delicate phrasing. Undoubtedly “Sassy” and the amazing Clifford Brown are looking down with pride at their most ardent student.
Talented musicians come and go in the world of jazz, either fulfilling their potential or succumbing to the temptations of mediocrity and artistic stagnation. Somehow, someway, Roy Hargrove has remained on the top of his game for more than eighteen years. Over the course of his stellar recording career, he has mastered the art of the jazz ballad, breezed through the staggered rhythms of hard bop, and wisely incorporated the sounds of funk and hip-hop into his studio outings and live shows. Quite simply, he boasts a model career. Not only has the Texan-born trumpeter released an impressive body of work as a leader, but in the role of composer and session player, he’s participated in two of the most important artifacts to come out of the Neo-Soul movement: D’Angelo’s brilliant Voodoo and Common’s magisterial Like Water For Chocolate.
Fortunately for those of us appreciative of this man’s gift, Roy Hargrove has stayed committed to creating first-rate art of the highest quality. Nothing proves this more than the beautiful music found on Earfood.