THE CULTURAL EMBARGO be damned, Roy Hargrove's Afro-Cuban journey begins with the hushed, haunting prayer "Oh My Seh Yeh," a bass-laden trance pierced sporadically by a pleading trumpet. The song's dark tone sets the stage for a smooth, slow-burning set where the rhythmic roots of Cuban music are used to spice his brand of modern North American bop, not drown it (as with so many otherwise well-meaning attempts at Cubop) in showy cliché. Thick, sweet sobs--such as Hargrove's "Ballad for the Children"--lead to the hard-driving jam sessions "Mr. Bruce" and "Mambo for Roy," where Puerto Rican-born saxophonist David Sanchez trades meticulously executed melody lines with Yankee trombonist Frank Lacy, while Cuban pianist "Chucho" Valdes slaps counter-rhythms against the percussion of countrymen Horacio Hernandez (trap drums), Miguel Diaz (conga), and Jose Luis Quintana (timbales). Kenny Dorham's stripped-down "Una Mas" and free-wheeling "Afrodisia" pepper the CD with the after-after-hours looseness of an East Coast club circa 1953.
Since critics and PR flacks often compare Hargrove to the late-trumpeter Dorham (after mentor Dizzy Gillespie, of course), it's tempting to judge Habana solely on the interpretive quality of "Afrodisia" or "Una Mas." But it's Hargrove's multicultural coming of age which demands scrutiny, not his ability to mimic a ghost--especially since Dorham possessed a inventive, lyrical maturity Hargrove is still years from achieving. When Dorham soloed over an Afro-Cuban cadence, he soared effortlessly, flitting from color to color without breaking a sweat. On Habana's up-beat tunes, Hargrove is often struggling for pace, either running too close to the edge or loping behind the band.
Hearing the prodigious 26-year-old Hargrove struggle, however, is what makes this project so thrilling. It would have been easy to crank out a collection of high-voltage dance tunes, accented with showy squeaks, squeals and trills (à la Arturo Sandoval gigging on The Tonight Show). Hargrove, after all, has made a name by playing loose with an otherwise tight-assed jazz renaissance. By journeying to Cuba, however, Hargrove learned to appreciate some of the subtleties of the island's deep musical traditions. He sat in with salsa veterans Los Van Van, relearning the values of a dance band's group dynamic. Those sessions are undocumented here, but their effect is palpable. Then he stepped outside of bop's rhythmic conventions to find that hot and heavy isn't just pace, it's feel. That Hargrove allows room for trial and error not only makes this outing far more interesting than his last three recordings, it promises an increasingly inventive, inclusive future--on and off the continent. (David Schimke)
Roy Hargrove and his U.S.-Cuban band perform Wednesday at Quest; call 338-3383.
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