Talking Jazz

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The Independent Culture

If all jazz musicians were like Roy Hargrove, so the theory goes, jazz would have mass market appeal. I'm not sure I agree - much of the music is too challenging ever to be populist - but it's easy to see where the theory comes from. Hargrove, who played two nights at the Jazz Café in London this week, is young (33), a very fine trumpeter equally at home guesting on albums by Erykah Badu or D'Angelo as touring with Herbie Hancock and Michael Brecker, and wouldn't look out of place in a Gap advert.

His new album, The RH Factor, calls in the favours from Badu, D'Angelo, Q Tip and various other phonetically named characters such as DJ Spinna to blend jazz, rap, grooves, neo-soul - you get the picture. Those enamoured of these kinds of fusion paint the picture of Hargrove as MC Moses, leading the jazz Israelites out of the desert to a promised land of youthful audiences. Whether that's true or not (and personally I think it's not the future for jazz per se) doesn't really matter, as this is just one project for Hargrove, and hanging out in the hip hop 'hood does no damage to his jazz chops.

As a role model for young musicians he leaves little to be desired. His advice is a welcome reproach to those who think that being authentic means throwing the Real Book out the window, and that a concentration on personal expression is more important than communication. "A lot of people of my generation and younger are forgetting that an audience wants to hear something that's in tune with them as well as yourself, like a ballad, a blues or a standard," Hargrove told me. "That's why there aren't so many crowds any more. The old cats, they knew how to do it and how to have a good time on stage. I understand that you want to show that you're smart, that you've got a brain, that you know what two plus two is, but at some point you've got to touch the people. You've got to give them something they didn't have before - besides frustration and, 'Why did I spend my money to come and hear this shit?'"

Hargrove advocates being a "complete musician" - he talks of playing in New York schools and being told after a jazz performance: "That's hip, but can you play some Wu Tang?" - but it's refreshing and a relief to hear someone in his position pressing the case for respecting the tradition. Although his line on what is or isn't jazz is conservative (he thinks acoustic instrumentation is essential, for instance), he can never be pigeonholed as one because he simply doesn't look like one. With his slightly stoned-sounding delivery and red tracksuit, Hargrove is obviously hip, and this makes him much better suited to defend the well-travelled path of bop than Wynton Marsalis, who can't help coming across as a stiff.

"Some musicians get so far into the cerebral aspect," says Hargrove, "that they forget about swinging and playing some music for the people. You've got to touch them. That's why you're there." Put aside the new album; this is the most important message Hargrove has to convey.