Roy Hargrove with Strings
Moment to Moment
Anyone who caught its mind-blowing performances at Sambuca in February can attest to the fact that the Roy Hargrove Quintet is at the forefront of today's jazz scene. The 30-year-old Grammy-winning trumpeter had superstar written all over him when he released his debut, Diamond in the Rough, at the tender age of 20. Back then the baby-faced hornman oozed promise and played with more maturity than most jazzers a decade his senior. Ten years later Hargrove is one of the most important figures of his generation. His quintet is probably the genre's most active top-tier ensemble, performing more than 200 dates a year. The constant touring has enabled the group to achieve a level of interplay most bands only dream of attaining.
On Moment to Moment, Hargrove employs the same monster quintet that awed the crowds at Sambuca. The band is joined here by the 16-piece Monterey Jazz Festival Chamber Orchestra, whose very presence should give one pause. Just recall Wes Montgomery, a brilliant guitarist who hit both amazing highs and painfully dreadful lows in a string setting. String arrangements can lend a certain romanticism, but in lesser hands, they can make a sweet song saccharine, a pop number embarrassingly Muzaky and the sublime tacky. Even the most seasoned jazz musician can come apart at the seams by failing to adjust to the nuances of the setting.
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On every one of these 12 songs, Hargrove avoids the traps of the string setting by playing with taste and restraint while refusing to sacrifice coolness or style. On "How Insensitive," he plays with a degree of lyricism most of his contemporaries lack. At once relaxed and intense, he throws some unexpected spins into his solo yet never strays from the ballad's soft aura. Lyricism, in fact, has become Hargrove's strong suit of late. His renditions of "I'm a Fool to Want You" and "A Time for Love" give the impression that Hargrove is passionately singing the lyrics through his horn.
The communication within Hargrove's quintet and between the group and the string section is also notable. On several songs, Hargrove gives a chorus to alto saxophonist Sherman Irby, a simple device that creates a refreshing change of pace and shows Hargrove's ego is clearly in check. Veteran pianist Larry Willis, a former member of Blood, Sweat & Tears ('72 to '77), wrote five of the string arrangements (the tastiest ones) and often serves as the group's foundation. He comps marvelously, adding just the right fills, sometimes throwing in unusual chords or vamps that have a way of making any particular moment special. Bassist Gerald Cannon and drummer Willie Jones III, aside from providing rock-solid rhythm, contribute two songs to the album that suggest they are strong composers themselves.
While Hargrove offers up nine excellent standards, the three original compositions, including the trumpeter's "Natural Wonders," are among the album's most enjoyable. They stand out even when sandwiched between tunes from the great American songbook. And the really good news here is that the strings actually serve a purpose: They make statements instead of just providing bland backgrounds for the soloists.
Moment to Moment is another high-water mark in Hargrove's career, an album boasting both superior musicianship and arrangements. But from a less technical perspective, it's also one helluva romance record.