The Roy Hargrove Quintet is a gift to people like me who long for straight ahead jazz full of energy and surprise, feeling and fun, unabashed tenderness and riotous noise. We’re the folks who grew up on Davis/Shorter, perhaps, but find ourselves listening more often these days to Baker/Getz or Harrell/Woods. There’s a lot to be said for modal jazz, but nothing tickles the brain or the heart like someone—better yet, and entire quintet—that really knows how to play the changes.
Hargrove strutted lithely on stage at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis Tuesday night a little after seven in a dapper suit, designer sunglasses, and a Mohawk. Quincy Phillips (at the drums) wore a summery plaid sport coat with thin yellow stripes and a roadster cap. Sullivan Fortner slouched behind the piano in a bulky purple-and-gray sweater, looking like his mom had just told him to clean out his room…and he was still trying to decide if he had to do it. Meanwhile, ever-bemused Justin Robinson, with a flowing beard and an alto sax hanging from his neck, could have passed for a kindly rabbi in a Woody Allen flick. (Ameen Saleem was largely invisible behind his stand-up bass.)
The band started to play…and they played, and they played. As one number came to a close, the unit would launch immediately into another one, oblivious to the eruption of hearty applause. The harmonies were tight, the solos intermittently inspired and never too long. Bassist Saleem’s solos were rubbery and perhaps over-miked but also joyous, and he sustained the momentum of the evening admirably, while Phillips’s moments in the spotlight were crisp and never thundered off into deep space.
Hargrove and Robinson moved around on the stage from front to back, side to side as their cohorts strutted their stuff, adding riffs here and there (more for the band than the audience) and returning to center stage for the wrap-up.
Some of the tunes were familiar to me from recent albums, though I couldn’t tell you which was which. “Invitation,” “Salima’s Dance,” “Strasburg/St. Denis,” “The Stinger.” Hargrove's solos were often fragmentary and meditative rather than blistering. Robinson let rip with a succession of incandescent and modally based solos that were slightly at odds with the band’s otherwise harmonic approach, though they added a welcome element of frenzy to the evening. The same could be said of Fortner’s often jumpy and occasionally almost arhythmic soloing, though in the course of the evening the young pianist demonstrated he could offer a sound to fit any musical situation.
Hargrove sang one mournful tune, “Never Let me Go,” and the impact of the human voice was all the greater because no one had being saying anything much from up on stage. He brought some humor to the phrasing, and later in the show, along those same lines, he also entered into a rhythm-game with Phillips, matching the drummer’s beats on a hand-held plastic box.
In a short, mediocre set, such an interlude can be one further source of irritation. In the context of a long, ebullient set like the one we heard Tuesday night, it’s an added element of fun.
Hargrove is a small, wiry man, almost dwarfed by the flugelhorn he pulls out from time to time. But the musical energy flowing through him is a force of nature, and in interviews he makes it clear how deep his knowledge of jazz runs.
I saw another aspect of that elemental force midway through the second set, when Hargrove, after finishing a solo, walked off stage through the curtain and reappeared at another door a few steps from my table. Standing in the dark against the wall, he proceeded to do an energetic dance with himself, somewhere between a watusi and a frugg, with a few 180-degree turns in a very small space. He was having fun and he just couldn’t stop. A moment later he reappeared on stage, horn in hand, ready for a reprise of the tune.
Hargrove was asked in an interview once what playing in a big band had brought to his sense of music. His reply:
“... It creates some kind of humility. It’s very needed. Excuse me, but a lot of times, especially now, when I got to the jam sessions, people are so ego! ... We’ll play an F-blues, and everybody with an instrument will get up and play, and it goes on for three hours. Each musician will play 100 choruses. There’s no humility there. Big bands, large ensembles create an environment where you don’t have to play for two hours and stretch out. Everybody can’t be John Coltrane! Sometimes you can just play half a chorus. Charlie Parker will play a half chorus and blow your mind! There’s something to be said about being able to trim it down—say less but have it have more meaning.”
We listened to Roy’s quintet for three hours, and it was all music. Stretching boundaries? Pushing the envelope? Not really. Just thoughtful, high-energy music. And a whole lot of fun.