Roy Hargrove & the RH Factor
oy Hargrove is on stage conducting a master class at his old stomping grounds, the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in Manhattan, as an endless train of eager young trumpeters, lips pursed, horns pointed to the back of the room, blast their way through an extended B-flat blues jam.
“That’s good. That’s good,” he says slowly. “You got the technique. You’re fast.”
“I didn’t hear no blues, though.”
He snaps his fingers for the new tempo, this time slowing the next jam down to a gridlock crawl in A-minor. The kids figure it out: Less notes. They’re listening to the band, to each other, simplifying, relaxing, not trying to impress anybody. They’re all in the groove and suddenly this endless train of unpolished-talent are hitting the bluest notes in the key. Roy nods in approval.
At 36, Hargrove has established himself as the not-so-young-anymore young lion with respect for tradition but none of his contemporaries’ insufferable exclusionary reverence. It’s what allows him to preach the importance of the standards and mastering your instrument to a class of admiring music students while devoting the last five years almost exclusively to his decidedly neo-soul leaning side-project The RH Factor.
But while the Factor’s previous effort, 2003’s Hard Groove, tried vainly to recapture the spontaneous magic of D’Angelo’s Voodoo sessions, Distractions sacrifices its predecessor’s lush smoky sultriness for a decidedly smoother approach. While the result often seems sterilized and overly slick, it does have its benefits. For one, it’s allowed Hargrove to carve out a more individualized sound for the group, rather than approximating D’Angelo’s absent essence.
The reclusive genius does in fact raise his head, albeit only briefly, to moan his way through “Bullshit,” the sole track in which his influence hasn’t been completely forsaken. With its scratchy crackling drums and muted trumpet, it’s a testament to Hargrove’s talent that “Bullshit”s sonority sticks out like a sore thumb, Distractions’ sole distraction. A D’Angelo moan alone could be worth the price of admission (the arrival of James River could make the release of Chinese Democracy seem only slightly delayed by comparison) but Hargrove, “Bullshit” notwithstanding, seems intent on pushing the Factor beyond its original intent, refusing to rely on D’s presence and consent to make it interesting.
On Hard Groove Roy’s distinct tone and phrasing served only as a flavoring—powdered sugar on his devil’s pie. Distractions finds Hargrove asserting himself, leading the groove and seizing his rightful spotlight. It’s hardly more evident than on the record’s final track, the unrelenting “Distractions 4.” For four straight minutes Hargrove dumbs out, pushing his horn into the upper registers, seamlessly stitching his near-perfect melodic phrases and unique timbre through the song’s deep groove. This is after all his show in case you/he forgot.
Murmuring organs, Rhodes, and Reggie Washington’s slinky basslines provide the basic backdrop for tracks like “Crazy Race,” the smoove “On the One,” and meditative ballad “Family” where Hargrove controls the melody with subtle stabs and delayed slurs. And elsewhere Renee Neufville, formerly of Zhane (“Groove Thing” hell yeah!), more than makes up for the lack of A-level guests with her sensual and assured vocals.
Released on the same day as his quintet’s Nothing Serious, an unmistakably traditional hard-bop record, Hargrove has proven he is as versatile as he is prolific. Distractions continues his progression, allowing Voodoo to remain a memory instead of a muse. He’s on to something. After all, the students can become the teacher.