Strictly using the Internet to keep up with Roy Hargrove is a difficult task. He’s not on Twitter, not very active on Facebook and no longer has his own website. He also hasn’t put out any studio albums since 2009. He’s a bit of an enigma online. Don’t be fooled however, Hargrove is still going quite strong, especially considering the struggle that exists for many.
“With what’s going on now, it’s kind of difficult for a lot of artists that play live instruments to survive because there’s not a lot of appreciation for it,” Hargrove told Life+Times. “Luckily we have places like where I’m at now, Joe Segal‘s [Chicago Jazz Showcase] club, especially here in Chicago. People love music here.”
He continues to perform nationally and internationally and remains in high demand. More than two decades deep in the game, Hargrove, 43, is a true pioneer when it comes to navigating the jazz, funk, soul, R&B, hip-hop intersection. Whether working purely as a jazz artist with his quintet, collabing with the Soulquarians, John Mayer and others, or leading his own funk group, big band or latin band, Hargrove has been all over the place. Being a jazz player first is what allows him to prosper everywhere else. “When you’ve got the tools to improvise, you can pretty much do anything you want to do. At the time, I was doing it as a tribute to my pops. He had just passed away in ’95, and I was just trying to get something to tribute [to] him because he had given me so much, and it came out like that. I wasn’t constantly trying to mix anything together, I was just doing something for my dad.”
Life+Times caught up with the horn player during his annual year-end residency in Chicago to discuss his past work, relationship with hip-hop and more.
Life+Times: The end of 2012 marked the 10th anniversary of the Soulquarians, more or less. Talk about your time working with those guys.
Roy Hargrove: There was a lot of talented guys in that musical realm there. James Poyser, Spanky [Chalmers Alford], Pino Palladino, Questlove – those guys are really, really talented. They know how to put it in the pocket. I was just glad to know that there were some other people that were down with that. It allowed us to really get into some explorative things, rhythmically speaking. I was just glad to share that, because my father was an album collector, he had all the great records, and I’m sure that those [Soulquarian] cats were digging in the crates, too. It was fun, I had a good time.
L+T: How much of that played a part in your work with the RH Factor.
RH: There were a couple of them on the album [Hard Groove]. At that time, since I had worked with D’Angelo and those cats, I figured it was a good chance to open the door for me to do a project like that. I brought in some of those cats plus some of my friends, too, and we had a real good exchange.
L+T: You worked on Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun, D’Angelo’s Voodoo and Common’s Like Water For Chocolate. What was the creative process like working on those?
RH: They pretty much wanted me to do horn section kind of things where I would stack maybe two or three of my voices together in a manner that would compliment the music they had put down. It was like this, I would [put] one track down, a kind of linear line – I just filled in the spaces. Then I’d come back and harmonize that two or three times. And it was a lot of fun to be able to put down orchestrations. That’s what they wanted. I believe, especially when you’re playing the funk, you can’t really do too much soloing or put in too many notes. So what they would call “jazzy” wouldn’t [work], you have to lend to more of an ensemble approach. That means playing sparse, you know. Whatever the music might need at that moment as opposed to doing too much. Less is more. I found it very challenging to be able to put together just the right kind of orchestrations for that, that realm of music. But like I said, you learn harmony, theory and rhythm, the basic tools for improvisation, then you can basically do whatever you want to. I always tell cats play the piano, get the harmony down, know what you’re doing harmonically.
L+T: So you play trumpet, piano, saxophone, drums?
RH: I can play a few. Not seriously, but it helps to learn how to play other instruments because then you can really understand how to write for it. You know all the different ranges, the limits and the plusses and minuses of each instrument. Where it goes, how high it can play, how low it can play. It helps you to be able to write for that.
L+T: How does music reflect society and things going on in the world?
RH: It does. Whatever you play is kind of what you’re living. If you love the music, it’s gonna come out. If you’re doing what you’re doing and it’s true, everybody’s gonna come out and see it because it’s the truth. I’m definitely influenced by everything. I think a lot of the stuff that hip-hip artists are doing has a direct relation to a lot of the stuff that people like Charlie Parker was doing, rhythmically speaking. You could take one bar of Kenny Clarke playing the drums and you have hip-hop, because his sound was real gangster. You’ve got bebop, then you have they’re children who were the funksters; after the funksters, we had the cats who studied their fathers record collection; after that, then you had hip-hop, you had the two turntables. Then the MC on top of that.
L+T: Talk about growing up with hip-hop and the influence it’s had on you.
RH: I came up checking out Run DMC, [they were] my first favorite, Kurtis Blow, after that was Big Daddy Kane when I was in college. Public Enemy. My man was KRS-One, BDP Productions, the teacher, Edutainment [laughs]. Then of course, Biggie Smalls and JAY Z. The whole West Coast thing, I was influenced by that as well. With N.W.A., Eazy E, Dr. Dre, DJ Yella, MC Ren. I’m waiting for MC Ren to put out a joint and mess everybody up because sometimes those team players have the real message. And I think Lil’ Wayne is quite prolific. This guy’s amazing, he doesn’t even write anything down anymore. Common, the whole midwestern thing with Kanye and J. Dilla, my lil’ homeboy Karriem Riggins just came out with his joint [“Alone Together”].
L+T: What’s at the core of jazz, funk, soul, R&B, hip-hop, that makes certain kinds of music timeless?
RH: If you’re playing straight ahead jazz, the real central element is the swing. The thing that makes you pop your finger or tap your foot, and that means it has to have a strong rhythmic content. That thing that makes you bop your head to it. The same goes for any other style of music. That thing that makes you snap your fingers, that element. When you listen to hip-hop, the first thing you hear is the drums. The beat, that’s what people respond to first, and then what the MC is doing rhythmically on top of that. That blend, it gets in your body. That goes with the funk, too, but the funk is more vocal oriented. Singers get involved and they got that church thing. That’s what gets in your body. All of these things are a part of the music that makes you move.
L+T: You go through funk, R&B, hip-hop, then you’re back here with your quintet, the foundation.
RH: I never leave it. It’s always in there somewhere. Whatever I’m doing. I think it’s really just about connecting with the audience. In whatever style you might be playing in, it’s about trying to connect with who you’re playing for. I find that people who come to jazz shows, they just wanna hear something that is memorable, that’s catchy. They don’t want to get beat over the head with a bunch of mathematics. They want to feel good. That’s the thing, that’s the central element that makes jazz so special, and it makes able to cross boundaries all over the world. I can play with certain cats that don’t even speak English, but we can communicate. I found that out when I was working with the Latin guys. One was from Puerto Rico and the other guys were Cuban, I couldn’t talk to any of them, but when we got to rehearsal, it was an understanding.
L+T: I was trying to find you on Twitter. You’re not on there?
RH: Man, I’m not very technically skilled quite yet. I’m working on it, but I haven’t done Twitter, Facebook or any of that stuff. Right now I just go on iTunes and buy music [laughs].
L+T: What you got coming up in 2013?
RH: Right now I’m just getting as much work as I can in with the quintet. It’s difficult, people don’t realize they pay us for the whole traveling bit. Actually getting to the gig is the hardest part. Going on the airplane, TSA, the airport, that stuff is annoying. Right now, I’m just going out with the quintet, it seems like that’s all people can afford to pay is five people [laughs], but I’ve got three other bands. I’ve got a latin band, the big band and also the funk joint, RH Factor. We just go wherever it takes us. In the future, I’m gonna team up with my baby brother [Brian], he’s a keyboard player. He’s really into the whole tech thing, so I can get my education on that.