Robert Glasper: Canvas

Robert Glasper
Blue Note

This is on the whole a disappointing set, the fault probably being Blue Note’s, for not getting more variety from this undoubtedly extraordinarily able young pianist from Texas. Artistic freedom is one thing, but during the label’s earlier years (recalled at the end of a very silly blurb which accompanied my review copy) the company’s Hitler-exiled German Jewish founders made musically sound demands on the musicians they recorded. They didn’t do anything like organising the uncongenial big band a later major saddled the early Blue Note prodigy Thelonious Monk with (far less the mercifully never executed planned sequel, Monk plays Lennon and McCartney!). They understood musicians’ own objectives and helped realise them — or in the case of Bud Powell, they refrained from recording him until he had some new compositions of his own to programme. Repertoire, rehearsal, et cetera was their strong point. They made mistakes, but not many, and not to an extent worth mentioning here.

The opening track is fine, barring a tendency at the end to extend stretched-out repetitions of fragments of the foregoing performance, something which can be a good idea on a live gig where reminders of what has just passed help overall appreciation. It’s not so useful when the music’s listened to in a quiet room with the wherewithal to play the same thing again.

Robert Glasper’s talents do get an excellent display on Herbie Hancock’s “The Riot”, which begins with him on Fender Rhodes duetting cum accompanying the lyrical cool school toned post-Coltrane tenor of Mark Turner, and proceeds to a display of creative and driving pyrotechnics on acoustic piano — a kind of rapid roving that anyone short of very great pianistic ability shouldn’t even think of. The combination of abandon and control is exceptional.

Otherwise, whether on the other title which gives the tenorist an outing, or the trio items with a young bassist and drummer who would probably be up to working with Ornette Coleman, there is for one thing the sameness of a swatch of new original compositions.

I’ll forego the strong temptation to quote the review copy’s paperwork, with its gruesome pseudo-jive talk about jazz history and cants of trendiness, because I don’t want to reflect on the talent of the young pianist, or of Bilal, who vocalises on a couple of the otherwise trio items. The notes also refer to Robert Glasper’s command of unusual time signatures, and his capacity to switch from seven-five to some other tempo-rhythm combination only for a few or the fatally foolhardy (Glasper being one of the few, undoubtedly). The point is that where he essays such switches they’re generally exercises only in ingenuity. The trouble with his compositions isn’t simply sameness, it’s the lack of underlying structure. He winds up playing themes again and again, and when the bassist takes off with an individual tone and line there’s generally not accompaniment, paraphrase of the theme, or reference to structuring elements and pushes, underlinings, harmonisations. The theme comes back in as a piano part, less jazzy than Ruben Gonzalez and without his phrasing or accents or indeed energy. There’s tame repetition.

Listen to a bebop pianist, even a fairly basic accompanist, somebody with much less than Robert Glasper’s talent. There will be at least some development over three choruses. The tendency here is to play a chorus, followed by a chorus, followed by a chorus, and round and round it goes, even if the time signature’s changing. He shouldn’t have been allowed to record so much running on the spot. He is a young pianist of talent who can do amazing things. Why is so much of this CD so tame? He may well be, as the blurb says, one in a great line of pianists recorded by Blue Note. The company doesn’t always seem to be what it was.

Incidentally, Blue Note as on other occasions, sent a specially labelled “review copy” with its own back card but not the booklet a buyer would have (and warnings that they can demand the CD back if thus diminished in its likely appeal to e-bayers a reviewer tries to sell the disc). So it’s not clear whether there is copy protection on commercially produced issues.

RATING 4 / 10