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Record Store Day Preview: Roy Hargrove & Mulgrew Miller’s In Harmony

Ken Micallef explores an archival release by modern day jazz legends…

We know the work of trumpeter Roy Hargrove and pianist Mulgrew Miller, who passed in 2018 and 2013, respectively, largely from their work as leaders and sidemen. Not often are we made privy to exceptional performances by past jazz masters in settings other than those for which they were typically known. But sometimes a golden thread remains long after the artist(s) has passed.

Culled from in-concert performances at Merkin Hall in New York City (January 15, 2006) and Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania (September 11, 2007), In Harmony finds two jazz masters in brilliant form, in rare duo setting. The first posthumous Hargrove release since the trumpeter’s passing, the limited-edition, two-LP Record Store Day (7/17) gatefold album will be followed by release of its counterpart two-CD set. In Harmony includes liner notes by jazz journalist, Ted Panken, and remembrances from Sonny Rollins, Jon Batiste, Keyon Harrold, Christian McBride, Ambrose Akinmusire, Kenny Barron and others. The vinyl edition was mastered by Bernie Grundman and pressed at Record Technology Inc. (RTI), and sounds excellent: full, rich, and clear (on a Thorens/Ayre/DeVore Fidelity system).

Perhaps the greatest musician to surpass the greatly hyped “Young Lions” movement of the late 1980s, Mississippi-born Roy Hargrove was a trumpeter on par with Hubbard, Morgan, Marsalis and Faddis. He possessed a gorgeous tone, giant sound, startling technical ability, and tremendous lyricism. When not sidelined by drugs, Hargrove gave inspired performances from large concert halls to intimate jam sessions, as witnessed by this writer at Smalls Jazz Club in New York City. For all his gifts, Hargrove was a humble, lighthearted musician.

Mulgrew Miller’s persona looms large from his associations with Art Blakey and Tony Williams, as well as his solo recordings for Landmark, Novus, and MaxJazz. But even given Miller’s pedigree as a modern piano giant, I wasn’t prepared for the sheer, total mastery and breadth of his talent as revealed on this double LP set.  

In Harmony finds the two referring to the great jazz standards canon, from song choices to improvisational embellishments to spontaneous, yet seamlessly placed arranging details. While Hargrove could hang with the greats including Clifford Brown and Blue Mitchell, Miller’s depth is even more profound, his performances recalling not only such contemporary piano heroes as Hancock, Tyner, Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan and Bill Evans, but he brings forth the spirit of stride piano masters Willie the Lion Smith and Earl Hines, as well as the effortless genius of Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, and Erroll Garner, often bringing jazz history alive in the scope of one tune.

Though it’s unclear if disc one is from the earlier Lafayette College concert (2006) and disc two from Merkin Hall (2007), Hargrove sounds occasionally unsure during the first disc, his lines sometimes faltering or not entirely rock solid. Though Hargrove’s tone is true, his improvisations rapt and daring, there’s a note of apprehension. Here, Miller often acts as safety net, his empathy and brilliant accompanist skills bursting forth in vivid colors. Disc two presents a more level playing field, Hargrove’s mastery: tone, ideas, imagination and lyricism, confirmed. Miller only broadens his game, his performance sublime, life affirming.

“What Is This Thing Called Love?” opens disc one, Hargrove searching; Miller delivering beautiful, flowing diversions throughout. The pianist provides a captivating introduction to ballad, “This Is Always,” Hargrove following with gliding, textured tones. The duo’s reading of “I Remember Clifford” is languorous and lyrical. Things heat up slightly with a medium tempo, bossa nova version of Jobim’s “Triste,” followed by a sublime, serene reading of “Invitation,” Hargrove delivering graceful glissandos, scorching blasts of sound, and hard swing. Miller matches Hargrove with chunky syncopations and potent lyricism, his mastery of the 88s stunning and complete.

It’s hard to define exactly why, but Hargrove sounds more assured and polished on disc two, resulting in his blindingly swift, effortlessly coherent solo on “Never Let Me Go,” and his spit-fire combination of trills, wails, slides and general joyousness in Blue Mitchell’s Afro-Cuban workout, “Fungi Mama.” The duo tackles Monk’s “Monk’s Dream” and “Ruby, My Dear” with equal parts boldness, inventiveness, and easy grandeur. They perform as a tight ensemble, trading inspired fours throughout. The slow grooving “Blues For Mr. Hill” reveals Hargrove scalding with Armstrong-like blasts, gymnastic flights, and sassy, punchy notes.

In Harmony is a master class in jazz profundity, two masters locking wits and charms, their ample gifts in full force, their skills exchanged with warmth and empathy. If there’s a better retrospective release paying tribute to jazz greats lost, I don’t know it. 

When children of the year 2050 ask what jazz sounded like in the mid- ‘00s, drop this record on the platter and say nothing. Virtuosity speaks louder than words.

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