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Robert Glasper

LIVE REVIEW: The Robert Glasper Experiment, DR Koncerthuset, 28.03.2014

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It could easily have been a mission impossible for Robert Glasper to render the music from two of recent years’ most groundbreaking albums within crossover jazz, namely his Black Radio and the sophomore Black Radio 2. Featuring a who’s who of artists from American urban intelligentsia (Erykah Badu, Jill Scott and Norah Jones to name but a few), the two records are predominantly vocal-based, making it not only an expensive but also unviable setup to take on tour.

Out of necessity – and intelligence – Glasper had therefore stripped it down to only include the instrumentation, but as the attentive listener would know, it is an equally as integral part of the Black Radio universe – if not more. With an original constellation of Chris Dave, Derrick Hodge and Casey Benjamin (all of whom have went on to pursue their individual careers) in addition to Glasper himself, the accumulated experience of The Experiment is equivalent to that of any jazz legend, and even the fact that only the two latter were present this night in Copenhagen, did not compromise the expressiveness.

Coming on stage as casual as only a cool cat can with a toothpick in his mouth and a tongue-in-cheek look, Glasper and his entourage – this night made up of Mark Colenburg, Burniss Earl Travis (filling in for Derrick Hodge, who was doing his own gig in D.C.) and aforementioned Benjamin – effortlessly proved that they could counterbalance the vocal polyphony of the albums, as the quartet almost spoke in unison. Musically, that is.

Thus the consecutive arrangements gave the illusion of an ongoing playlist as if it had been an album(!), but also necessitated the musicians to take breaks between one another, allowing for the showcase of each of them individually and in intelligent interplay with Glasper. Especially the symbiotic mutuality between Glasper’s floating finger technique and Colenburgs accentuated march drums worked as a testimony to the notion of ‘two minds, one thought’, exemplified in the intermezzo that led up to the powerful rendition of ‘Let It Ride’.

Yet vocoder virtuoso Casey Benjamin caught most of the attention as a man that literally lives and breathes music. Along with the rest of the band he gave a surprising cover of last year’s megahit ‘Get Lucky’, that avoided the pitfall of making just another jazzified version that many have already opted at, and instead remained faithful to the original by solely adding some minor chords, consequently revealing the poetry of postmodern pop music when stripped of its mask (or space helmet).

As can be seen, the structure of the night was more like that of a jazz than R&B-concert, with integrated solos and jams, letting the instruments take front stage. Being that it was Friday night, the dramaturgy could have called for a climax, but instead the audience were invited to participate in a multi-plot story with downbeats in the history of African-American music, that in addition to the abovementioned also included a reinterpretation of Bill Wither’s classic ‘Lovely Day’, the compulsory Dilla tribute that started out in Billie Holiday’s ‘Body and Soul’ and took turns to ‘Smell’s Like Teen Spirit’ before a tour de force performance of The Experiment’s own breakthrough hit ‘All Matter’ as encore.

In many ways also a mission impossible, as the Danish crowd supposedly would know more of the mainstream Robert Glasper than the jazzy discography of his, but instead of choosing the ‘easy’ option to play the Black Radio-repertoire back to back, he and his Experiment employed the challenging tactic of inviting the audience in by the backdoor to let them perceive the music from the inside out rather than the opposite – as one would usually do when listening to the radio. For the same reason, the unproportionally high degree of white noise in Koncerthuset did not interfere with the Black Radio, as it had its own frequency this night.

ARTICLE: Robert Glasper, not just the man behind the keys

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It’s practically almost easier to mention who Robert Glasper has not worked with. Coming from a jazz background, there is off course all of those that would ring a bell in those circles, but what might come as a surprise to the average listener is that Glasper also has collaborated with a broad segment of contemporary urban and pop artists, ranging from The Roots to Solange and Q-tip.

Never to self-important to degrade either dimension, the pianist instead forged the two into one of last year’s most remarkable records, the critically acclaimed Black Radio, and is now ready with its follow-up, logically named Black Radio 2, that might tap into an even broader audience, potentially giving Glasper the recognition he rightfully deserves.

The right album at the right time

Fed up with the lack of new thinking within the jazz community, pianist Robert Glasper and his Experiment set out with the relatively humble ambition to stir things up a little. The outcome – ‘Black Radio’ – went far beyond that, literally inscribing itself into American music history by taking home a Grammy for Best R&B Album in 2012. The conditions of the time were however also favourable as renowned trumpeter Nicholas Payton had sparkled his campaign to re-naturalise jazz music among other genres under the umbrella-term Black American Music (usually abbreviated as BAM).

Glasper nevertheless dissociated himself from this conception, diplomatically rejecting it; “I just don’t think to call it Black American Music is the way to go, because there’s a whole lot of black American music under that umbrella, and they all have names.” More so, Glasper in his own right, involuntarily came to forefront a new movement among jazz musicians, and Black Radio also marked itself as the principal work among a wave of similar projects from contemporary, coming-of-age jazz acts such as ERIMAJ, Gizmo, Lakecia Benjamin and NEXT Collective, all of whom were rounded by the popularity of urban music during the 1980’s and 1990’s.

Creativity emancipated

With most of its tracks being either covers or do-overs, much more than the lyrical content, the true innovation of Black Radio was the musical mastership of The Experiment. From Glasper’s floating finger technique and Derrick Hodge’s empathized bass play, to the adaptively march-infused drums of Chris Dave, all rounded of by jack-of-all-trade Casey Benjamin’s signature vocoder and whatnots.

That’s not to talk about what the prime roster of artists from the urban intelligentsia brings to the table; Stokley Williams breezily everting his soul on ‘Why Do We Try’, an unusually underplayed version of Bilal on David Bowie’s ‘Letter To Hermione’ and Erykah Badu’s stylish take on jazz standard ‘Afro Blue’.

The fact that the majority of the album was recorded through intense jam session over the course of 4 days, is only to be heard in how the decades of accumulated experience assembled in the studio lets their informed impulses lead the way, yet never goes astray down otherwise seductive pitfalls of irrelevance; every solo is appropriate, every improvisation on point.

A co-creational effort

Whether it was the Grammy nomination that encouraged the Experiment to further go down the R&B-path is uncertain, yet that is however what they did on their follow up, Black Radio 2, being released this week. To compensate, almost all of the material on the new record is original content, co-creatively conjured through the Experiment’s tight arrangements as the musical backdrop, setting the perfect scene for each of the featured artists’ unfolding.

A co-creational project in all regards, several of those (that include Common, Emeli Sandé and Jill Scott, among others) are participating by request from their fans, thus showcasing the mastermind of Robert Glasper not only as a composer and producer but also as a marketeer – but most of all an artist, way ahead of his time.

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