R+R=Now’s ‘Live’ Honors the Tradition of Black American Creative Music

R+R=Now is an all-star jazz collective (Robert Glasper, Derrick Hodge, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, Terrace Martin, Taylor McFerrin, and Justin Tyson) jamming live at New York’s Blue Note club. Chill and clean and modern.

Blue Note
22 January 2021

The space where jazz, R&B, and hip-hop converge no longer seems like it should be described as some kind of “fusion”, where one type of music gives way to or shares space with another. It is one unified space today, of course, and it’s easy to see that these intersections always were one space, whether defined by Ray Charles, Miles Davis, or Kendrick Lamar.

R+R=Now is a group convened by an artist who is native to that space: pianist Robert Glasper. Shortly after the group’s studio album, Collagically Speaking, released in 2018, Glasper got a four-week stint at New York’s Blue Note, during which he played with all his various ensembles and collaborators. The “Reflect and Respond Now” band got a stint and transformed their studio tracks into a deeper extended live groove session—spacey and languid, hip and atmospheric. Live is state of the art for music within this space, as it honors influences and forges ahead in equal measure.

Much (too much) is still made of the general “jazz wars” that turned Wynton Marsalis into a neo-traditional lightning rod in the 1990s, accused of fetishizing Duke Ellington. They made Glasper a figure of controversy recently. He has won three non-jazz Grammys and is probably most famous for writing/producing/playing with popular musicians such as Big K.R.I.T., Kendrick Lamar, Mac Miller, Common, Brittany Howard, and Talib Kweli. There’s a decent argument, however, that Glasper is just as grounded in tradition as Marsalis. Not only does he maintain a successful acoustic piano trio, but the sound space of R+R=Now is deeply reflective of jazz ancestors such as Herbie Hancock, Weather Report (Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul, each and together), Gary Bartz, and—of course—Miles Davis. Glasper and his collaborators are simply one generation ahead and play the role on hip-hop records that Herbie Hancock previously played on Stevie Wonder albums.

Most of the tracks on Live are built around Martin’s vocoder singing. He’s mainly known as a producer, particularly associated with Lamar’s contemporary classic, To Pimp a Butterfly. Older listeners will hear in the vocoder echoes of Herbie Hancock’s mid-1970s music, but there is something more interesting going on here. Martin uses the tech not just to put a melody and electronic effects on this voice but, more vitally, to give it an electronic texture that swirls the voice into the band’s atmosphere. If this kind of thing sounded gimmicky in the 1970s (and I think it did), then R+R=Now makes it work in several ways.

First, the trumpet playing of Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah is also electronically processed throughout. However, like Martin’s singing, it’s done without losing the human textures of the voice itself while also adding elements of digital distortion, growl, phasing, or reverberation that bring it additional expressive power. On top of that, the synth playing throughout by Taylor McFerrin (yes, singer Bobby McFerrin’s son) is a third voice that floats in the sonic space of both Scott and Martin. The three—whether playing together in a block or winding like strands in a musical braid—create a timbrally logical and attractive “front line” of instruments. They are the Jazz Messengers for a hip-hop generation.

For example, on “Been on My Mind”, McFerrin rides over the rhythm section (Glasper, bassist Derrick Hodges, and drummer Justin Tyson) on his own at first, playing what turns out to be the secondary melody line. Martin’s vocal/vocoder comes in as the main melody alternating with the synth lick that preceded it. Then the whole band repeats the main section with more intensity, as Scott’s trumpet enters with harmony and McFerrin’s synth moves upward in pitch and volume. Tyson and Glasper step up their activity as well, leading to a bridge section that includes stop-time and waves of more varied harmonies. At under three minutes, it plays a wholly conceived arrangement that gives every voice a place in the whole.

Similarly, “Change of Tone” sets up the vocal with a McFerrin synth line (in this case doubled by Hodges’s bass) before we get a unison blend, and “Postpartum” gives the vocal and trumpet a chance to play together and in call-and-response. All of this sonic blending and movement back and forth in conversation is performed at a level of sophistication beyond what Hancock could achieve on 1978’s Sunlight. Hancock’s vocoder on “Come Running Back to You” was deployed in a blend with the flute, an active electric bass, Fender Rhodes, and synthesizers, for example.

But the textural range of the vocal and other instruments wasn’t controlled or shifted with the expressiveness we hear on “Postpartum”. Scott’s horn is continually morphing in tone and electronic effect, just as Martin shifts the degree to which his singing is shot through with synth, as well as the synth’s particular waveform. Ditto with McFerrin, which means that there seems to be a multi-hued orchestra of sounds with so many superb players working in real-time through electronic instruments that afford them subtle control. In Scott and Martin’s case, those in controls include the acoustic elements of singing and trumpet playing as well. There is nothing pre-processed about the sound.

The rhythm section plays an equally crucial orchestral role in this band. Hodges’s bass can move about, melodically, like an electric guitar or synthesizer, but he is just as likely to create lush, double/triple-stop patterns as on “Respond”. There, Hodges and Tyson don’t need Glasper’s or McFerrin’s keyboards to create a rich sonic world over which Scott’s melody rises and falls with drama. Tyson is the kind of young drummer who stands in the lineage of Chris Dave, a previous member of Glasper’s groups. Like Paul, Tyson blends elements of gospel, modern jazz, and R&B into a rivetingly syncopated form of modern hip-hop drumming. That means that he plays in a manner that can be spare one moment—with echoing snare cracks hitting home and then leaving beautiful space—and then with fast and precise triple-time patterns filling other moments with the sounds of a busy New York subway platform. So, Tyson and Hodges can both be remarkably still and thrillingly busy, and they lock in together in a constant state of surprise.

Inevitably, the defining sound of several tracks remains that of the collective’s biggest name and spokesperson: Glasper. The three tracks that get deepest here are in one way or another about his way of putting the piano—the acoustic piano—at the center of a new generation’s music. Coming out of “Been on My Mind”, the band segues naturally into the Kendrick Lamar tune “How Much a Dollar Cost” from To Pimp a Butterfly. Glasper plays on many of the Butterfly tracks, but he wasn’t on this one, though Martin produced it and told him that its piano part was meant to sound like him.

That is how pervasive Glasper’s thrumming rhythmically mesmerizing piano sound has become—it is an influence on jazz pianists such as Aaron Parks and on hip-hop producers alike, allowing harmonic complexity to be threaded into complex beats that are still hip-swaying. “How Much a Dollar Cost” sets us its groove and the tune’s three-note instrumental refrain is there, creating a sense of call and response as the improvisers step in for the rapping, tossing ideas back and forth between alto saxophone, trumpet, and synth—suggesting (of course) the way in which rappers like Lamar have always been verbal beboppers.

The following tune, “Change of Tone”, features Glasper’s pianistic groove setting and his daring improvising. Tyson establishes a spare, staccato snare pattern mixed with rushes of triple time over which the vocoder and synth play the theme, leading to a piano-only bridge. From there, Glasper grabs center stage over a simple harmonic frame, delivering the set’s only extended “jazz” moment. It is exquisite jazz piano, balancing left and right hand at first, then moving into a jagged locked-hand playing section that is unlike what you are used to.

Tyson and Hodge become sparer in their playing as Glasper opens up and plays more, creating all kinds of open space for the pianist to engage in audacious rhythmic conversation with the metronomic hip-hop background. It sounds incongruous, perhaps, but Glasper gets so gloriously at odds with his rhythm section here, only to snap back into the groove, that he channels Dave Brubeck’s ability to get lost in a pounding rhythmic abstraction and then return to swinging. Finally, Glasper’s two hands engage in a virtuosic back-and-forth of shimmering 32nd notes that is breathtaking. You may never hear him quite the same as a pianist again.

When it comes to stretching out, the whole band gets a workout on Glasper’s tune, “Resting Warrior”. It’s a strong instrumental composition that uses a kalimba-like keyboard sound on a repeated and varied chattering rhythm to set up both a majestic theme melody and a bed for daring improvising. That is the best possible feature for Martin’s saxophone, which cuts like Kenny Garrett and gets outside traditional harmony. Scott also builds his best solo of the set, starting with a quiet, flute-like whisper and building into a jabbing Miles-ian conversation with snarling synths and the kalimba sound. McFerrin also makes a case for his synthesizer as a truly expressive “jazz” solo instrument—not something most musicians attempt anymore. He works in circular patterns broken up by dollops of silence, creating fluid phrasing and excitement as he exploits the instrument’s ability to use small bent melodic edges and rippling-fast runs.

This 25-minute epic closes the live set with a sense of authority. R+R=Now may be making music that sits at some “fusion” intersection. Still, the whole package of sound, musicianship, and bold improvised expression is decidedly in a tradition of Black American creative music. Live suggests that the music is equally capable of being taken seriously as cutting edge expression and enjoyed as a sonic slice of contemporary pop culture. Why can’t those things be the same again?

RATING 7 / 10