How Roy Hargrove Served As the Soulquarians’ Melodic Backbone
Jazz giant Roy Hargrove, who recently died at the age of 49, was a crucial part of the Soulquarians family, helping bring fellow members’ artistic vision to life while celebrating black music’s rich legacy.
The Soulquarians. When the name of this prolific alternative hip-hop and soul collective is said, it’s inevitable that people gravitate toward the more prominent members: Questlove, D’Angelo, J Dilla, Erykah Badu Common, or Yasiin Bey.
But Roy Hargrove, who recently died of cardiac arrest at age 49, deserves acknowledgment as well. The trumpeter was a major part of the Soulquarians family, helping bring fellow members’ artistic vision to life while celebrating black music’s rich legacy.
By the time Hargrove was brought into the world of the Soulquarians, he was already a notable musician. Hargrove was discovered by fellow trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who watched a 16-years-old Hargrove perform — “with incredible accuracy” — at the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas in 1986. Hargrove went on to attend Berklee College of Music in Boston from 1988 to 1989 before relocating to New York to attend the New School and begin embarking on a career as a professional musician.
Throughout the ’90s he released a handful of albums as a bandleader: his debut Diamond in the Rough (1990), With the Tenors of Our Time (1994), and the Grammy Award-winning Habana (1997). Then, came the Soulquarians, where he contributed to three masterpieces that all came out in 2000 — D’Angelo’s Voodoo; Common’s Like Water for Chocolate; and Badu’s Mama’s Gun.
The music made under the Soulquarians was recorded at Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady Studios in New York City. Those sessions have taken on a mythic allure throughout the years, Questlove calling the experience a “left-of-center black music renaissance.” In retrospect, the description is accurate — the studio a space for black exploration, each and every one of these artists finding the commonality between black music — R&B, funk, hip-hop, jazz, and soul.
Assisting in that process was Hargrove.
In 2013, Hargrove talked about working on those albums with Life + Times:
“They pretty much wanted me to do horn section kind of things where I would stack maybe two or three of my voices together in a manner that would compliment the music they had put down. It was like this, I would [put] one track down, a kind of linear line — I just filled in the spaces. Then I’d come back and harmonize that two or three times. And it was a lot of fun to be able to put down orchestrations. That’s what they wanted. I believe, especially when you’re playing the funk, you can’t really do too much soloing or put in too many notes. So what they would call ‘jazzy’ wouldn’t [work], you have to lend to more of an ensemble approach. That means playing sparse, you know. Whatever the music might need at that moment as opposed to doing too much. Less is more. I found it very challenging to be able to put together just the right kind of orchestrations for that, that realm of music. But like I said, you learn harmony, theory and rhythm, the basic tools for improvisation, then you can basically do whatever you want to. I always tell cats play the piano, get the harmony down, know what you’re doing harmonically.”
There’s a versatility to Hargrove in all three albums, his accompanying parts a subtle but rich addition to the artists’ projects. In Voodoo, the trumpeter’s melodic harmonies are swung to the point of feeling slurred, Hargrove complementing D’Angelo’s slow-churning funk and soul. There are moments where the trumpet functions as a vocal part, like on “Send It On.” During the track’s intro, a call-and-response happens between the two, Hargrove’s melody bouncing alongside D’Angelo’s ascending vocal run. As the song continues, Hargrove’s parts follow the singer’s lead, emphasizing the intricacies of the harmonies present throughout the song.
Hargrove’s standout moment on Voodoo is “Spanish Joint,” which he co-wrote with D’Angelo. The trumpeter’s first note comes 32 seconds after the track begins, his staccato delivery paired with Questlove’s hi-hat hit. From there, Hargrove gradually adds more — a flourishing countermelody that carries D’Angelo’s airy falsetto; bouncy pops that respond to Quest’s rimshots. This is the most active Hargrove is on the album, and yet it’s still masterfully subdued, the musician using different rhythmic patterns and dynamics to create something that’s structured but playful.
On Like Water For Chocolate, Hargrove is the first sound listeners hear; his layered trumpet parts giving way to African rhythms on “Time Travelin’ (A Tribute To Fela).” Then, the crack of a snare introduces a boom bap drum beat, cementing a hip-hop groove that Common coolly hops on two minutes into the track. The soundscape of “Time Travelin'” reflects the name: African percussion and vocals evolve into jazz through Hargrove’s trumpet, providing a melody that Questlove and J Dilla can build a simple but effective drum pattern around.
Through “Time Travelin'” and “Cold Blooded,” Hargrove showed the connectivity between hip-hop and jazz without overemphasizing it. Similar to D’Angelo he shadowed Common’s raps, adding melody to the rapper’s cadences. But sometimes he’d play within those cadences, striking notes with a little more emphasis to reflect Common’s delivery on certain words.
Hargrove’s most defining moment during his time with the Soulquarians was on “Green Eyes,” the ambitious closer to Badu’s Mama’s Gun. The tortured breakup track is made up of three movements: “Denial,” “Acceptance?” and “The Relapse.” The first part feels traditionally jazz, Hargrove’s trumpet accompaniment reminiscent of Charlie Shavers on Billie Holiday’s “Lady Sings the Blues.”
Badu and Hargrove are melodically pleasant, playfully bouncing happy melodies back and forth to each other. But underneath it all Badu is hurting: “I don’t care/I swear/I’m too through with you.” The instrumentation contrasts the lyrics, Badu trying to downplay the conflicting emotions that have come with her heartbreak.
In “Acceptance?” Hargrove is absent, flutist D’Wayne Kerr accompanies Badu as confusions begins to set in. Is she really over her former lover? Then, “The Relapse,” where Hargrove’s harmonies wash over the track with a cool melancholy as Badu begs her former lover for one last moment in hopes they’ll return for good.
“I can’t believe I made a desperate plea/What’s with me?/Me me yeah,” she sings as the song’s key changes. There’s a triumphant tone in Badu’s moodiness, her final plea turning into frustration as she questions the uncertainties she’s facing following the breakup. Initially, Hargrove is reserved, offering an elongated note that harmonizes with Poyser’s piano, the two serving as a soothing end to Badu’s final declarations. But as the track comes to a close Hargrove plays a subtle melodic run that feels refreshing — reassuring even, giving way to Badu’s last bittersweet admission: “I know our love will never be the same/But I can’t stand these growin’ pains.”
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The Great Roy Hargrove. He is literally the one man horn section I hear in my head when I think about music. To watch him harmonize with himself stacking nine horn lines on mamouth 10 mins songs RARELY rewinding to figure out what he did. Or not even contemplating what the harmony was (this is up there with Jay Z never writes his rhymes territory) —-like you can hear an incomplete Dangelo song once—-like an 11 min song—-and then in 20 secs you know the EXACT SPOT ON line to bob in and weave out?!!!! I know I’ve spoken in every aspect of Soulquarian era recording techniques but even I can’t properly document how crucial and spot on Roy was with his craft man. We NEVER gave him instructions: just played the song and watched him go —-like “come back in 45 mins I’ll have something” matter of fact now that I think of it —-I was so amped to put handclaps on @Common’s #ColdBlooded @JamesPoyser and i didn’t even take proper time out to approve what he worked on, it was like I already knew. So when you hear us SCREAMING/laughing at the 1:51 mark (me/com/d/rahzel/james) that’s us MIND BLOWN at another #Game6 esque performance from Roy. And all that stuff towards the end? We just reacting in real time to greatness. Such a key component. And a beautiful cat man. Love to the immortal timeless genius that will forever be Roy Hargrove y’all. #RoyHargroveRip
The day that Hargrove died, Questlove summed up the jazz legend’s legacy succinctly in an Instagram post:
“The Great Roy Hargrove: He is literally the one-man horn section I hear in my head when I think about music. I know I’ve spoken (of) every aspect of Soulquarian era recording techniques but even I can’t properly document how crucial and spot on Roy was with his craft, man. We NEVER gave him instructions: just played the song and watched him go.”