Crisol, which translates as "crucible" or "melting pot," is a phenomenal collection of talent first assembled earlier this year at the Umbria Jazz Festival in Italy -- although the impetus for the project was inspired by Hargrove's visit to Havana in 1996. Dazzled by the city's uniformly high level of musicianship and camaraderie, Hargrove found himself bit by the Afro-Cuban bug, whose past victims have included Austin native Kenny Dorham, and, of course, Dizzy Gillespie, one of Hargrove's mentors and role models. "Dizzy let me sit in sometimes; I always enjoyed the kind of unity he would inspire among all the musicians. I have this inspiration with me when I work with these musicians from Cuba."
It's a quantum leap from Waco, Texas to Havana, Cuba, but Hargrove made the trip in record time. Born in Waco, his family soon shuttled to Dallas, where he was blessed with gifted teachers right from the start. "My father always had an ear for music, and had a lot of great records at the house," recounts Hargrove. "I'd listen all the time and when I started playing, I'd try to follow along and learn to play what I heard."
By the fourth grade, Hargrove had already joined the school band. While most band directors at this level spent their time telling kids to shut up and which end of the horn to blow into, Hargrove was already being instructed "very vividly how to improvise based on the blues." Junior high brought area legends such as David "Fathead" Newman and Marchel Ivery to visit the school, heavily influencing the young players. It wasn't until Hargrove entered a performing arts high school, however, that he first heard the music that changed everything.
"The jazz programs and the radio would mostly play the Yellowjackets, Kenny G, whatever... the more contemporary style of jazz, so to speak," explains Hargrove. "When I heard Clifford Brown, that's what really changed my whole way of thinking about music. I began to understand how to play over chord changes, to understand the true language.... more about the total spectrum of music."
It's no coincidence that Brown, a lyrical player with immense talent, was also a young prodigy who burned bright, until he was killed in a car accident at age 25. Hargrove turned 27 this year.
It was still another young traditionalist, Wynton Marsalis, who jump-started Hargrove's career. Marsalis visited Hargrove's school, and notably impressed, asked the young trumpet player to sit in with him at Fort Worth's Caravan of Dreams. It was there that Hargrove met his future manager, who several months later had him touring Europe with the likes of Walter Booker, Idris Muhammad, Ronnie Matthews, and Frank Morgan. Hargrove had never been out of Texas. "I'm on the Eurail pass going on the train through Europe, traveling with some monumental musicians. It was a great, great thing for my development."
A stint at Boston's Berklee College led to gigs with James Williams, Ralph Moore, and regular appearances at Bradley's in New York City (the Raul's of jazz clubs, which sadly closed recently). Having the good sense to reject the first offer that came his way -- a `contemporary' jazz contract from GRP -- Hargrove soon found himself, at age 19, leading his first straight-ahead recording session for Novus Records.
What all these musicians and record labels heard in Hargrove was a maturity and taste far beyond his years. Unlike, say, Marsalis, there was no brashness, hogging of the spotlight, or lecturing fans about music they'd been listening to long before any of these young traditionalists were born. Claiming to still be an evolving player, Hargrove's confident melodicism left little doubt he was already a major talent, and a gracious one at that. His solos enraptured the audience, though he was just as likely to step away from center stage to make room for others.
When Hargrove switched to Verve Records a few years back, his projects took on a more conceptual tone; a blowing session with monster tenor stars, the Family album, honoring and featuring many of his musical peers and educators, and a saxophone-less trio date paying tribute to Charlie Parker. And now, Habana, with the international big band, Crisol. It started, like so many things do, with an invitation.
"`Chucho' Valdez is a longtime friend of my manager, and he invited us to come to the [Havana Jazz] Festival," says Hargrove. "There were a lot of great musicians there... their educational system is really great, and the musicians start playing music in the morning and play late into the night. I think this has something to do with their great virtuosity. The players are extremely developed at a very young age. Also, nobody's out to get the next person's gig. You don't feel the competitive thing you get here. I felt very welcome, I had a lot of fun, and I learned a lot as well... about rhythms, the different roles the instruments play to create the collective groove."
Soon thereafter, Hargrove knew he had to record with these players. `Chucho' Valdez (piano), Miguel `Anga' Diaz (congas), `Chanquito' Quintana (timbales), and `El Negro' Hernandez (drums) are all huge stars in Cuba -- and would be household names here as well, were it not for the State Department's problems with all things Cuban. (Can a country that champions jazz and baseball really be that bad?). Better yet, persuading them to come to Italy to record proved easy.
"Whenever I'm on anyone's bandstand," Hargrove explains, "be it mine or anyone else's, I try to really project a positive attitude and add something to the music. I think these musicians can feel that, and that's why they agreed to record with me." But Hargrove was out to do more than merely imitate the Cuban sound. He wanted to create something new. To that end, he rounded out the band with Americans Gary Bartz (alto), Russell Malone (guitar) and fellow Texan Frank Lacy (trombone), plus Puerto Ricans David Sanchez (tenor) and John Benitez (contrabass).
The group played a week of dates prior to the recording, and their hybrid of hard bop and furious Latin rhythms became a surprise hit of the Umbria Festival. "[Latin music] attracts people from all different walks of life, it has a strong rhythmic element that makes people dance," says Hargrove. "If you've ever been to any kind of Salsa club, you know people are out there dancing to the music. It's not the kind of thing where you can sit down. Jazz has sort of been put in the `sit down' category lately. When you combine the two, it's the kind of thing that can bring people together. I was surprised by the amount of people that came to hear the group in Italy because of the different and diverse cultures within the group. You can't put a stamp on [Crisol's music]."
For the tour, Sherman Irby (alto), Julio Barretto (drums), and Ed Cherry (guitar) replace the unavailable Bartz, `El Negro,' and Malone, but otherwise, Crisol's amazing lineup remains intact and ready to storm the stage at the State Theater. Only when talking about his music in the most personal terms does the modest, soft-spoken Hargrove's voice take on a passionate edge.
"I have an extreme love for playing and just being involved with music in any way. I always had a good ear for music, and it's stayed with me. I guess it's a... a gift. When I play, I don't feel like it's me playing. I'm the vehicle, the messenger."
Thursday night, Roy Hargrove and Crisol have a message to deliver.
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