Until only a few years ago, big-name jazz bands routinely would come through town for a week at a time, settling into a local club. But the economics of jazz (like the economics of everything) have changed. So when trumpeter Roy Hargrove arrived Wednesday for a five-night stand with his quintet at Yoshi's in San Francisco, his presenters gave it a special name: a "residency."
Well, the Roy Hargrove residency began late; there was the sense through the evening that clockwork Yoshi's can't quite handle the popular trumpeter, who is a character. After a 20 minute wait, and without introduction, he and the band wandered onstage for Wednesday's early show, with Hargrove commenting, in a raspy whisper, on the rarity of the Al Green track still playing on the PA system. (He's a famous connoisseur of jazz, R&B and hip-hop; has entire catalogues in his head.)
Then the band rattled, a little messily, into Hargrove's "The Stinger." But like a picture tightening into focus, the tune started to deliver its message: Hargrove has a young rhythm section that kicks and kicks; doesn't let go of a groove. And for the next 90 minutes, over the course of a dozen tunes -- Hargrove wouldn't stop playing, even with the late-show crowd lined up outside -- the show gathered a soulful momentum, often very quietly. Which is how Hargrove, 43, played everything, whether hard bop or one of his jazz/hip-hop anthems: softly, even at a whisper, like his speaking voice.
Never did he summon the brassy, whip-snap bravura with which he made his name a couple of decades ago; one wondered if he was physically capable of it. Rather, often playing with his eyes closed, listening and waiting, he would grab onto snatches of drum rhythm, riding on a note or two, spinning stripped-down melodies or finding a telling blues phrase, revealing a story.
He appeared vulnerable. Yet he was as musical as ever, and kept calling on that catalogue of tunes in his head. In the midst of his solos, out would pop flashes of Fats Navarro or Oscar Pettiford -- bits of tunes that basically no one plays or even references anymore, except Roy Hargrove.
The band performed vintage ballads, along with off-the-beaten-path tunes by McCoy Tyner and Cedar Walton and numerous originals by Hargrove, including "Turn 'em Off," his crafty re-make of Benny Carter's "When Lights Are Low."
It was a beauty: the close harmonies of Hargrove and alto saxophonist Justin Robinson; the old-school swing of Hargrove's pithy muted solo; and the way Robinson, in his solo, grabbed one plump note after the next, like Carter or Johnny Hodges. There's a lot of history in Robinson's horn. On other tunes, he played Coltrane blizzards or went dive-bombing on a slant, something like Eric Dolphy.
And about the rhythm section: Pianist Sullivan Fortner, bassist Ameen Saleem and drummer Quincy Phillips know exactly what they're up to, cleaving to set arrangements, but with an on-the-fly sensibility. Wednesday, Sullivan was the key: sitting in a slouch at a slight angle to the keyboard, he approached each tune and solo from a fresh perspective, sketching and jabbing, opening up ideas, then weaving elegant structures. There's blues and the church in his playing, tempered by restraint; he harks back to players like Hampton Hawes or Phineas Newborn Jr. (And he's only 26.)
Maybe two-thirds of the way through the set, Hargrove played a ballad medley on flugelhorn: "Rouge," "Never Let Me Go." The room grew dangerously quiet. The sound of Hargrove's breath came through the horn, which he set down to sing "Never Let Me Go," accenting key words with a shake of vibrato, cutting to the quick:
At the very start, all my bridges burned/by my flaming heart.
You'd never leave me, would you?
You couldn't hurt me, could you?
Never let me go.
Never let me go.
Roy Hargrove Quintet
When: 8 and 10 p.m. Jan. 3-5, 7 and 9 p.m. Jan. 6
Where: Yoshi's San Francisco, 1330 Fillmore St.
Tickets: $16-$28, 415-655-5600, www.yoshis.com