In 2007, the jazz pianist Robert Glasper released In My Element, a recording by his trio that demonstrated that jazz—utterly on its own terms—could absorb the rhythmic innovations of hip hop. Glasper, Vicente Archer on bass, and drummer Damion Reid played straight acoustic trio jazz, but they incorporated the stuttering, mechanical syncopations that hip-hop DJs had discovered how to make organic when mixing records and samples. Without itself using this technology, Glasper’s trio revels in a truly new angle on the piano trio, which resulted in one of finest, most innovative jazz recordings of 2007, maybe the decade.
Double Booked is a half-follow-up, theatrically split between the trio for five tracks and then a band (called “Experiment”) for six that does incorporate turntables, electric bass, vocals, and saxophone. The first track is a mock telephone message from trumpeter Terrence Blanchard telling Glasper that the trio is booked in a new club—but didn’t he hear from ?uestlove (of The Roots) that the Experiment was booked on the same night elsewhere? Oh, no!
And, sure enough, the second half of the record starts with a phone message from ?uestlove inviting Glasper to bring the Experiment and “all that miraculous, spaced-out, past geometry, near-calculus you all be doing”. In short, Double Booked uses as its premise Robert Glasper’s explicit sense of being torn between his acoustic trio and a group that is explicitly rather than implicitly fueled by contemporary pop music. To these ears, at least, this makes Glasper (and maybe ?uestlove, if his role in this is genuine) a pointedly poor interpreter of his own work. The trio is an up-to-the-minute example of authentic hip-hop culture. ?uestlove should be digging the trio. The “Experiment”, as Double Booked bears out, is derivative and dated. The Experiment is the safe, conservative outfit here.
The trio’s five tracks are once again outstanding. Glasper has constructed a language that is lyrical and rhapsodic in a Keith Jarrett mode but that develops rhythmic complexity of exceptional interest and unlike what any other trio achieves. “Yes I’m Country (And That’s OK)” begins with a solo piano section that even the most casual music fan can enjoy, but the underlying groove of the trio section contains a set of quick-jumping figures that allow the trio’s new drummer, Chris Dave, to layer on a tricky-quick Latin figure. Once Glasper is improvising, these nervous rhythmic grooves grow richer and richer until the solo climaxes with a repeated piano figure that locks everything together. Brilliant.
Dave begins “Downtime” with a funk beat played by brushes and kick drum, and “No Worries” contains another Latin feel that shifts subtly to stutters and groove. But best of all is Glasper’s take on Thelonious Monk’s “Think of One”, which is the most drum-like version I’ve ever heard, even as it plays the melody straight and even alludes to Monk’s stride piano roots. Glasper reharmonizes Monk to make this vintage repertoire piece fit in with the larger body of Glasper’s work. It all swings, but when the trio reaches beyond straight jazz time, it never fails to find something special and new.
Then the Experiment takes over. Chris Dave is on drums again, playing more explicit funk, and Glasper is now likely to be playing Fender Rhodes. Rapper Mos Def makes an inconsequential appearance on “4eva”, but the band really announces itself on . . . a recreation of a 1974 Herbie Hancock tune, “Butterfly”. “Butterfly” has been covered a million times in the last 35 years, and without taking anything away from Chris Dave’s outstanding groove and Glasper’s terrific imagination on this Rhodes solo, this track seems more derivative than daring. Its primary differentiating feature is the use of a vocoder on the theme. You know the vocoder: a computer gizmo that lets you “sing” like a robot through a synthesizer. The 1970s never sounded so . . . 1970s.
Alas, it seems to be vocoder season in jazz. (It is also used extensively on the recent release by vibes player Stefon Harris, Urbanus.) And so Glasper features it on two other tracks. “For You” is nothing but a two-minute feature for vocoder (abruptly faded out), written by Casey Benjamin, the alto player who players vocoder throughout. It also appears on the final track, “Open Mind”, an intriguing composition that collages together various samples of speaking voices. The more conventional part of the track uses a series of rising two-note phrases to build a nice head of steam. This is an interesting piece of carefully produced atmosphere, and Chris Dave plays his heart out. As an “experiment”, however, it is relatively tame, sounding a heck of a lot like some work done by The Pat Metheny Band almost 20 years ago.
One track, “All Matter”, features a strong vocal by Bilal, with Glasper playing a creative acoustic accompaniment while Dave plays with rock conviction. It is the strongest of the Experiment tracks. “Festival” gets rolling right, with aggressive beats and Benjamin playing acidic alto like Kenny Garrett, but the synthesizer presence here is deeply unfortunate—brittle, fake-sounding, plastic. Again, the issue here is not that electric instruments violate some sense of purity but, rather, that they are used here in the vaguely cheesy style of some decades ago.
Which gets to the larger question with the “Experiment” half of Double Booked. Why isn’t the experiment more up-to-date? How is a retro-take on the 1970s pushing the music forward? And why doesn’t the genuine and truly integrated experimentation of the jazz trio satisfy Glasper’s urge forward?
Still, half a fine album remains a gift these days, particularly when that half comes from a vanguard trio like Robert Glasper’s. ?uestlove, man, next time you call, just beg for the trio.