Roy Hargrove Tribute at Jazz at Lincoln Center: Common, Norah Jones, Wynton Marsalis & More Pay Homage to Late Trumpeter

Roy Hargrove
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Roy Hargrove performs on Oct. 9, 2016 in Paris.

He was supposed to be there. The feeling was impossible to shake as Wynton Marsalis led the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra into New York's Rose Theater on Tuesday night (Jan. 8), performing “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” as a traditional second line -- the prototypical jazz funeral.

Marsalis and Roy Hargrove were meant to always be peers, two trumpet prodigies who turned their technical prowess towards reinvigorating the music of jazz’s classical period. Just eight years apart, they first met when Hargrove was 16; when he was leading a band at New York’s Village Vanguard four years later, it was Marsalis who the New York Times credited with “discovering” the phenom.

But Hargrove wasn’t there, having died of cardiac arrest at age 49 the previous November, and it was challenging for the musicians enlisted -- despite the fact that there were 200 of them -- to fill that void. At the Celebrating the Life and Work of Roy Hargrove event, all corners of Hargrove’s oeuvre were featured in what turned out to be a marathon five-hour show.

The length was fitting. As bassist Christian McBride (who was playing alongside Hargrove at that Vanguard debut almost 30 years ago) noted in his opening speech, one thing that never changed about Hargrove was his energy for the music. Even as his health faltered, on any given night Hargrove could be found at Smalls Jazz Club in Greenwich Village for the 1:00 a.m. jam sessions; alongside jazz students and seasoned pros alike, he just wanted to keep playing. “It was almost unparalleled,” said McBride. “He could literally play all night.”

In that way, it made sense that the audience -- mostly composed of friends, family, and Hargrove’s musical community, if the easy banter and inside jokes were any indication -- didn’t want the music to stop. The Roy Hargrove Big Band started off the evening with arrangements from their 2009 album Emergence. Three songs in, there had already been seven trumpet solos, a number that would seem to multiply exponentially over the course of the night. Yet, as beautiful and chops-busting and evocative as they all were, it was hard not to hear them and think what it would mean to hear Hargrove play those songs he loved so much one more time.

The mood was light, though: Hargrove’s light, sweet arrangement of “September In The Rain” had a couple dancing in the aisles. When trumpet player Theo Croker started a scatting call-and-response -- the same one Hargrove does on the record -- it seemed like the entire theater joined in.

A quintet featuring Hargrove band alumni Karriem Riggins, Jon Batiste, Antonio Hart, Freddie Hendrix and McBride followed, offering the sleek contemporary jazz Hargrove made during his rise as a bandleader. Both Riggins and Batiste have since become better known outside of jazz -- Riggins for his pop collaborations, and Batiste as the musical director for The Late Show With Stephen Colbert -- and it was truly refreshing to see them swing.

One of the evening’s high points followed, as an ensemble of living legends took the stage. Though getting onstage was something of a process for them, once pianist George Cables, bassist Ray Drummond, drummer Jimmy Cobb, and saxophonist Gary Bartz got there, keeping up with the younger cats proved no trouble at all. Dee Dee Bridgewater joined the group to perform Horace Silver’s serene “Peace,” first recalling a concert in Paris where she’d performed the tune with Hargrove.

The quintets and big bands kept coming, showing the sheer breadth of Hargrove’s musical impact -- the number of artists touched by what McBride called Hargrove’s “unusual musical wisdom.”

Two performances in particular channeled his musical extremes. Hargrove’s singular talent for ballads is well-documented, and it’s hard to imagine a better person to pay tribute to that side of his musical personality than Norah Jones, who also attended Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas. “He was the pride of our school -- we were all in awe of him,” she said as she sat at the piano. “This song was written in 1938, but I learned it in high school, listening to Roy on my CD player.” Then she played a perfect, understated rendition of “The Nearness of You,” which appears on Hargrove’s 1995 album Family.

In stark contrast, the evening’s upbeat conclusion drew on Hargrove’s love of deep grooves and classic funk with a reunion of the RH Factor, his genre-fusing band that connected jazz with the work he’d done alongside neosoul artists like Erykah Badu, D’Angelo and Common.

“I didn’t know jazz musicians could be that young and be that fresh,” the rapper explained of first meeting Hargrove before kicking off a brief freestyle atop the band’s jubilant playing. The bass rumbled through the otherwise fairly staid Rose Theater as the robust ensemble performed a number of songs from their 2003 album Hard Groove; singers Stephanie McKay and Renee Neufville brought down the house with stunning takes on “Forget Regret” and “Juicy,” respectively. It was an excellent reminder of just how vital Hargrove was to generating the jazz/R&B/hip-hop fusion that’s currently in vogue.

The RH Factor closed the night with “Crazy Race,” a gloriously organic 21st century update on classic collective improvisation, centered on a call to action that feels even more urgent without Roy among us: “We’re ‘bout to get up on this thing, the time is now -- what you waiting for? It's time for you to get up and show the world what we have in store.”