By Matt Cosper
Photo: Paris Pullen
November 8, 2017
Harvey Cummings II is well on his way to becoming a legend. He’s still a young man, but the signs are all there. The Charlotte native has risen steadily in the music world since graduating from North Carolina Central. A prodigiously talented (and award-winning) instrumentalist who plays both saxophone and piano, and his work as a songwriter and producer has real depth and artistry. His soul-inflected jazz is informed by the break beats and atmospherics of hip-hop; it’s sophisticated and robust. Tellingly, Cummings seems to be able to focus on his own work while also making room to celebrate other local artists. In conversation he has expressed gratitude for the love he is getting nationally and he hopes that he can be a voice that helps shine a light on the Queen City. He speaks like a fan when he talks about Charlotte artists including Elevator Jay, Blame The Youth, Lute, The X Men, Junior Astronomers and Adrian Crutchfield.
Cummings has been paying his dues and building community around his work by doing features on the records of other artists and by playing live with artists such King Mez (for BET’s Music Matters show in NYC), Anthony Hamilton, Carlitta Durand and Angie Stone. His band, The Harvey Cummings Project has gained real traction in contemporary jazz circles, gigging at festivals and clubs and even performing for President Barack Obama. Cummings’ played keys and saxophone with 9th Wonder for Seasons Two and Three of the hilarious and relevant Cartoon Network program The Boondocks. That alone grants him a certain status in my eyes, as The Boondocks is a cultural touchstone. On top of the work with Cartoon Network, Cummings has had his music placed in advertisements and podcasts. This is all apart of building something, laying the foundations for something bigger. A true artist of his times, Cummings has learned that touring isn’t always enough, and that being able to place his music in other media is a necessary means of raising his profile.
And so all this time, Cummings has been honing the material that would make up his debut release, Chicken Day EP. Named for the weekly event in the cafeteria at his alma mater (and most other HBCUs), Chicken Day EP has a feeling of cool celebration, a feeling that everything is alright and what could possibly be wrong? Cummings describes those Chicken Days as highlights of his time at NCCU and the record fairly oozes with affection and nostalgia. There is a bit of alchemy at play here that is surprising for its subtlety. Cummings has spoken of the hip-hop influences on his work, and of wanting to “trick folks into listening to jazz.” Well, he pulls it off neatly on tracks like “Ain’t that Something” and “That There.” The drums and piano bass lines are bound to be irresistible to anyone raised on hip-hop but, then, the sax comes in and things start to get sublime.
These aren’t bangers mind you, because this isn’t that kind of party. This is a whole lot cooler. This is reminiscent of Guru’s Jazzmatazz albums, and coming from me that is not faint praise. The tracks on Chicken Day do a rare thing: they manage to be laid back and bright all at once, easing the nerves while simultaneously stimulating them. It’s intoxicating.
Taken as a whole, the record is more than the sum of its excellent parts. There is an interweaving of themes and motifs throughout that speaks to a larger design, and enough dynamics that the listening experience is a real journey. It’s nearly perfect, and a testament to Cummings’ emotional intelligence just as much as his exquisite musicianship. It’s some serious magic, and a significant step forward in the journey of a major artist.