To use a cliché, pianist Robert Glasper wears many hats. He oscillates between his jazz trio, his “experiment,” and a demanding schedule as a premier sideman (Maxwell) and session player (Common, Q-Tip, the Roots) — Wednesday’s hat was a black fleece, by the way. He is thusly described as operating at the nexus of hip hop and jazz, heralded as a vanguard. It often seems this intersection balances upon Glasper himself. However, Glasper is the first to shun such lionizing. In a recent NPR interview, when asked about jazz’s old guard criticizing his position as an innovator, he emphasized the form’s dynamism. “I’m doing what ‘Trane and Miles were doing. I’m doing what Herbie does”. In other words, he is simply doing what any honest jazz musician would do — experimenting with new sounds. The conservationist attitude embodied by the jazz community, “kill[s] the alive to praise the dead”, he says. By ossifying, jazz is killing itself. It’s a stinging rebuke, but less so when delivered in his jovial demeanor.
On Black Radio, his first formal record for Blue Note with the Robert Glasper Experiment and a natural continuation of his previously bifurcated album, Double Booked, all of his collaborators possess a “jazz spine”, he says. The same is true of each member, whose backgrounds and recordings parallel Glasper’s. The consistent element in all of Glasper’s playing, to borrow another cliché, is the groove. As he told me two years ago, “It’s like a drone or something. It puts people in a zone and it just evokes feeling and it gets spiritual”. It’s a comforting feeling, “to be able to just nod my head for five minutes”, he says. This foundation was on full display Wednesday night at the Highline Ballroom, a second album release show added after overflowing interest. Instrumental in the record’s groove was drummer Chris Dave, who has been more than capably substituted by Mark Colenburg.
Opening with “A Love Supreme”, the quartet’s sound coalesced under Casey Benjamin’s galactic vocoder while anchored by Derrick Hodge’s bass. Later, Benjamin picked up his saxophone, blasting emphatic lines. Hodge showed-off his lyricism when he played an extended solo intro to “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, deeper in their setlist. Like the record, the show’s energy was derived from a roster of special guests. Ledisi crooned along to a reworked “FTB” and Meshell Ndegeocello also sang beautifully. Many in the crowd were itching for the evening’s most well-known guest, Lupe Fiasco. Along with Bilal, they performed “Always Shine”, returning several times thereafter. In fact the show closed with Fiasco’s “Kick Push” and “Show Goes On”. The loose, organic musical partnerships onstage were exemplified by Fiasco and Glasper’s constant teasing. Highlights included: Glasper referring to Fiasco as Whoopi, given his sprouting dreads; Fiasco stealing Glasper’s wallet; and Fiasco challenging Glasper to rap, who obligingly played along by feigning incompetence to the crowd’s delight.
Less enthusiastic jazz critics, while celebrating the group’s obvious talent, will likely bemoan the lack of piano solos, the liberal use of Benjamin’s vocoder, and the ambiguous pop or jazz direction. But that’s the point. Glasper and his cohort’s unique inputs, equal parts Run-DMC and Thelonious Monk, naturally generate unique outputs. The result is a balance of diverse forces that forge a lulling cadence — and natural progress.