Roy Hargrove has been ringing in the New Year at Joe and Wayne Segal’s Jazz Showcase for many years.
“About 20 years and counting,” Wayne said after a weekend of packed-to-capacity houses at the legendary club, which currently is celebrating 70 years of presenting world-class jazz at various locations in Chicago.
Wayne and his indefatigable, formidable father, Joe, had their hands full, fielding more guests than their capacious 170-seat South Loop room could hold on Saturday night. And at the Sunday matinee, some fans had to be turned away.
Texan trumpeter Hargrove, 48, and his fireball quintet, this year comprising bassist Ameen Saleem, alto saxophonist Justin Robinson, high-energy drummer Quincy Phillips and new pianist Tadataka Unno, always bring it. When the bandleader performs, he never takes prisoners, delivering urgency and the moment.
This recent performance was no exception, although there was some surprise at his sartorial presence.
The elder Segal remarked about “the new outfit” as Hargrove appeared in a hooded cammo jumpsuit, hi-tops and white rim glasses. Other performances found the bandleader well-heeled, donning a suit.
Hargrove fosters something of a Miles Davis vibe as relates to fashion, attitude and stagecraft. He avoids announcing tunes, but is less aloof and austere than Davis, sporadically singing and dancing, which Davis never would have countenanced.
Barely had the elder Segal introduced the band before the leader launched into “The Poet,” a snappier version of the ballad he recorded with Herbie Hancock and Mike Brecker on the Grammy-winning Directions in Music: Live At Massey Hall (Verve). Salient in the mix from the outset were powerhouse polyrhythms and backbeats from Phillips, whose kit boasted a long resonating cymbal that spiraled like a peeled orange. He scarcely relented the entire set, which ran almost an hour and a half—a generous helping of dense music before the house was turned over for the second show. Another factor spurring tempo and intensity was the tumbling phraseology of Robinson, evoking something of the head-over-heels passion and wild articulation of Eric Dolphy. Rather than build a solo, the altoist throws colorful bricks at the listener from the get-go.
Scrappiness allied with finesse in Hargrove’s hands as he and Robinson shared a rough-and-ready simpatico, concocting riffs at the back of the stage or parlaying playful counterpoint with each other, as on the joyous, funky tiptoe of “Strasbourg/St Denis.”
An abiding fascination with the Champs’ 1958 warhorse “Tequila” was a curious feature of Saturday night’s set and drifted into quotes at Sunday’s matinee. Like one of his heroes, Freddie Hubbard, Hargrove throws down hard and long and if he cracks notes; it’s not for want of playing (Cameron Pfiffner, of the Green Mill’s Sabertooth, informed me that Hargrove jammed with the quartet and hung out until 4 a.m. at the Mill).
His dynamic spontaneity tied to a tight focus on the music is why Hargrove is revered; his horns don’t shine like the custom models of Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah. They are tarnished, well worn. Like Nicholas Payton, Hargrove feels compelled to vocalize, and his rendition of “The Divine Spirit” has been a regular feature of recent sets, the melody redolent, yet not copycating, John Coltrane’s sacred compositions.
“Root Prayer” which began with a 007-like refrain also reflected Hargrove’s faith and gratitude. Another anthem of appreciation, this one more secular, was the concert closer: “Soothe Me,” a finger-snapping bounce sung by Hargrove that featured his new piano man, Tokyo-born Unno, who’s percussive but light-fingered style conjured Ramsey Lewis at intervals.
“He’s really great, I like Tada,” enthused Hargrove after the show. “He’s very diligent; he studied with Hank Jones and has a really wonderful approach to accompaniment.”
Now and again, Hargrove mouthed prompts to his most recent recruit, and in turn Unno interpolated elements of the melody in his solos, as if to underscore that he knew what page they were on. At one point, though, a song petered out via the piano and it seemed unexpected. Such happenstance is part of the group’s charm.
The next day, Hargrove, who’s Sunday best constituted a blue pork pie hat and matching blue knitted sweater emblazoned with the word “Believe,” which he vociferously denied having anything to do with Santa, eventually treated listeners to exemplary flugelhorn balladry with “You Are My Everything.” Utilizing purity of tone on the mellower horn, poised breath control and steadied vibrato, Hargrove can be a spellbinding balladeer. There was a paucity of ballad-play during the Showcase sets, but when the room is full, especially on a Sunday, Hargrove, the holy roller, sets out to raise the roof, eventually exhorting all to clap and sing along.
“It’s a blessing to be able to play here,” he said of his two-week residency. “I’ve been playing here since I was 19. Every night, we get to know each other better. Having a long engagement helps to build a cohesive group sound.”
Despite the turnout at both sets DownBeat attended, Hargrove had misgivings about the current state of the jazz audience. Congratulated on his two-week run, he scoffed, “You talk as though that’s a big deal. Back in the day, they used to play for much longer periods of time, which really helped to solidify the way the band sounded. It should be a month—it should be more. It’s not enough. Everywhere it’s not enough. But we can’t get people to really support jazz like that. People don’t come out to hear live music as much as they use to.”
There might have been quieter mid-week nights during Hargrove’s Showcase stay, but it was difficult to disparage his public support in Chicago during January’s frigid temperature.
Hargrove’s two-week run was well-enough attended that the Segals elected to take a rare breather from working the club for a few days.
“Roy’s residency at the Jazz Showcase is like a musical holiday present and a great ending to a wonderful year of music,” commented the jade-proof, endlessly upbeat Wayne. “He is a true genius and definitely on the top of his game.” DB