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Arts Desk
Every week on the air there's a special focus on one particular jazz album. Check them all out here!

Jazz Album of the Week: Previously Unreleased Duets find Mulgrew Miller and Roy Hargrove 'In Harmony'

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Humility and comfort. Those are the qualities that shine through most prominently when I listen to In Harmony, live recordings of trumpeter Roy Hargrove and pianist Mulgrew playing as a duo in 2006 and 2007. Newly released from Resonance Records, an outfit that’s mastered the concept of previously unissued recordings, this one’s, sadly, a posthumous release; Miller died in 2013, Hargrove in 2018. The music world is a lesser place without the voices they shared through their musicianship. That’s why recordings like this are such a gift.

But this is no ornamental memento; this is a record to really wear some grooves into. It’s a muscle relaxer and a mood enhancer, the perfect auditory cocktail. And the reason for that, as the album’s title suggests, is the chemistry. These are musicians maximally comfortable with themselves and with each other. There’s a familiarity and a real sense that on both gigs recorded here—the first is from New York City’s Merkin Hall in Jan. 2006; the second is from Easton’s Lafayette College in Nov. 2007—the two are perfectly simpatico in style and purpose.

Together, the two bundle together most every strain of sound that can be said to represent “straight-ahead” jazz. In that sense, there’s an exhaustive quality to the presentation—listen closely for the nods to their influences, from Gillespie and Garner to Monk and Marsalis—but it’s never exhausting because everything with these guys is so stress-and-ego-free. And it’s never tired because both Miller and Hargrove bring a unique improvisational zeal to each tune. That zeal is ever-present but leaves enough oxygen for each tune to breathe and open up fully like a vintage pinot noir.

The best ones so frequently have transcended hubris, and both Miller and Hargrove were far too humble to transform standards in their own image. Yet neither is too shy here to leave their signature on restoration work of the utmost elegance.

And, from the very jump, they don’t hide their fastball, opening with a take on Cole Porter’s “What is This Thing Called Love” where both stretch out with improvisations that are always precise, purposeful, and never meandering. Hargrove’s intonation, even at tempo, is something; every sound that emits from his horn is like a sharpened arrow that drives straight through the heart of the note; he’s a joyful jazz assassin. But the highlight of this one comes after Miller’s long solo, when they start trading fours. Now that’s fun. When Hargrove, off the cuff, quotes Monk’s “Rhythm-a-Ning” and Miller literally does not miss a beat by responding in kind, I mean…forget about it. Superior showmanship.

If that one primed you for some Monk, you’ll be pleased to know consecutive Monk selections—“Monk’s Dream” and “Ruby My Dear”—appear down-record. Hargrove’s treatment of the latter will bring tears if you let it; it’s really a spot on the record where one feels the enormity of his loss acutely. What an enormous talent.

Miller, for his part, showcases a vast tapestry of styles—Monk, Bud Powell, Oscar Peterson, Erroll Garner, Art Tatum, McCoy Tyner. You hear shades of them all here, usually not all at once.

But what’s maybe underrated about Miller is his percussiveness as a pianist. Notice, there’s no drummer here, no bass player either. A fun bit of trivia is that this is the only album on which you can hear Hargrove without a drummer. A lot rides on Miller to drive this thing forward, and that’s where you hear the Art Blakey in him—Miller made much of his name in the ’80s by playing with Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and then recording with Messenger alumni like Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison, and Benny Golson.

Golson is well represented here with the duo’s take on “I Remember Clifford,” the moving tribute to Clifford Brown that Hargrove first recorded in 1991 on The Tokyo Sessions. If you were able to make it through “Ruby” without shedding a tear, I defy you to try and stay dry here. Take the advice of Nina Simone, “Break down, and let it all out.”

There’s no need to wade in heavy pathos for too long, though. Throw on some zinc oxide and grab your least fashionable bucket hat because the take on Blue Mitchell’s “Fungii Mama” will transport you on a magic carpet of Calypso all the way to beaches even more tropical than South Jersey’s. Just remember: Tiki is a state of mind…that’s helped along by good music. And rum.

Also among the mood boosters are a couple Dizzy Gillespie tunes—a delightfully herky-jerky rendition of “OW!” and a “Con Alma” that, contrastingly, is as suave as you can imagine suave being…until you hear the take on Jobim’s “Triste” that forces you to completely re-evaluate everything you think you knew about the suave concept and lifestyle. It’ll take more than Drakaar Noir and Tommy Bahama, but listening, really hearing this one, might get you a step closer. It couldn’t hurt.

“Blues for Mr. Hill,” a Hargrove original, is maybe the one I would’ve chosen to close things; instead of goodbye, it communicates “see you soon.” Its blues foundation speaks to hardship but also resilience. It’s so hard not to think of how these two great musicians died much too soon—Miller at 57, Hargrove at just 49. But, on this tune, it’s impossible to dwell on that. All you hear is how lucky they were in life to share their brilliance with audiences who appreciated it and understood it. And we’re lucky, too, that someone had the good sense to hit record.