Recap: The Robert Glasper Experiment presents its findings
Robert Glasper and his hip-hop influenced jazz isn’t about finding something new as it is about bringing back something old that modern jazz had forgotten.
Words and Photos: Kevin Lee / October 28, 2013
That Robert Glasper got bored is the short version of the story. The accomplished jazz pianist, who said, “I’ve gotten bored with jazz to the point where I wouldn’t mind something bad happening” in an interview to DownBeat magazine, sought to create his own shock to the system with the founding of his new quartet, The Robert Glasper Experiment, and the release of Black Radio, his longplaying fusion project which featured collaborations with several hip-hop artist including Yasiin Bey and Lupe Fiasco. He brought his tour to San Francisco’s brand new SFJAZZ Center last week in support of the follow-up album Black Radio 2, and demonstrated what a live performance of his experimental sound is like—which is not exactly revolutionary, but definitely moving toward a different path.
Part of Glasper’s experiment is to not be above turning himself into a robot. Those simple repetitive drum patterns and looped samples, and DJs playing records instead of playing actual instruments, seem so antithetical to what a instrumentalist does—like it’s better off being done by a machine instead of wasting actual talent and years of training on such childish bars. Indeed, the traditional strength of jazz is the complexity of its imperfect humanity, the slightly-off-beat playing, the playing a note in so many ways to express a multitude of emotions, and the general disdain for sticking to a script. Contrast this to the fully-scripted beats made in software like Fruity Loops: every beat, snare and hi-hat are exactly on time, sounding exactly the same. But as bland as this mechanical sameness sounds on paper, it has an advantage jazz long ago ceded: it’s danceable. It’s a predictable rhythm that allows the listener to add their own imperfect human grooves on the dance floor.
And in the staid auditorium in the SFJAZZ Center, where patrons are not allowed back to their seats during songs and have to wait for the songs to end lest their little pitter-patters ruin the ability to discern how hard the sax is being blown on the fourth beat of the 31st bar, there were people ready to dance. And here the at-the-door waiters had their chance to groove, able to sway their hips while Glasper and his Experiment played bars from Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky”, with KC Benjamin’s vocoder not quite replicating Pharrell’s voice but was still appropriately on point. The group (at times lead by Benjamin while Glasper was happy to play a support role) played through a medley of jams that they would recreate in a jazzy way before diverging from the sheet music subtly and turning the songs into their own. The selections they did were nicely varied, from something more expected like “Cherish” from Sade, to something familiar but completely unexpected, like “Smells like Teen Spirit” from Nirvana. The song selection wasn’t a haphazard mix of easily recognizable tunes either; it’s as if Glasper and company took cues from the best hip-hop DJs on how to select songs, from any genre, that can blend together seamlessly sonically and contextually. It was during their rendition of Slum Village’s “Fall In Love”, produced by J Dilla, that Glasper took to his keyboard and played a simple chord progression like a sampler would—a track that brought out the head nods from the audience. Drummer Mark Colenburg used a standard drum kit but with the addition of a drum pad, switching his sample set on the pad routinely, as if he added an MPC with his drum kit. KC Benjamin held the center of the stage and the most varied array of instruments, streaming his vocals through a vocoder, where his hands constantly twiddled the settings on the effects panel.
Through it all, Glasper is a natural entertainer. When it was time to get on the mic to talk to the audience, he had the ease and the wit of someone who has experienced years of being the class clown, milking every little inflection, intonation and gasp for as many chuckles as he could. He relayed a story about playing Bill Wither’s “Lovely Day” at a sound check that eventually led to a meeting with Withers, then later talking to Anita Baker (whose songs inspired him to play piano in the beginning) about how Bill inspired her to start singing. And at the point where his winding monologue hit full circle, he dropped the mic, walked off the stage, came back in via the door on the other side of the stage, and took the mic again. The audience was in stitches; he probably has done this bit a hundred times by now, but the band is still chuckling. Later, when Martin Luther came on to the stage in place of Anthony Hamilton for “Yet To Find”, a new track from Black Radio 2, Glasper made a point to compare the prints on his pants with KC Benjamin’s.
And as much fusion was displayed, each performer, including bassist and Blue Note recording artist Derrick Hodge, was given their own time to craft solos. Glasper’s own performance was a long, improvised ballad between him and his grand piano, and a single-toned note from a synthesizer that played throughout the piece—a small nod to machines again, but one that kept to its corner and added just enough to the atmosphere.
In the end, though Glasper stretched his horizons, the music was still jazz, and it was in totality a performance of jazz music. There was a time when jazz was a form of pop music and its ambitions less within the audience’s heads and more at their feet. While Glasper’s experiment aims to add modern flourishes into jazz, the end result isn’t as much about bringing something new into jazz but about bringing something back.