Review: Robert Glasper in Glasgow
Fred Grand hears music rooted in Mwandishi-era Hancock and electric Miles but refreshing the tradition through a smart adoption of today's urban language and the possibilities offered by modern production techniques
When it comes to jazz/hip-hop crossover projects, the field is littered with so many heroic failures that you could be forgiven for thinking that this is one forced marriage which can never satisfy the jazz purist. Looking at it from another point of view, there is nevertheless a lengthy tradition of "urban" artists and producers who mine the world of jazz in search of killer grooves and classy instrumental textures. If you think that the two worlds are poles apart, Soweto Kinch's free-styling hints that a good rapper will riff with words "in the moment". Perhaps there is a natural kinship just waiting to be found, but I must confess that I approached this evening's show by the Robert Glasper Experiment with slightly mixed feelings.
A man with a firm foothold in both camps, Robert Glasper is not only one of the most convincing heirs to Herbie Hancock on the current scene, but he also has great credibility in the worlds of hip-hop and R&B. In a parallel career he has produced and performed with such luminaries as Mos' Def, Erykah Badu, Maxwell and Q-Tip. When Bruce Lindsay reviewed Glasper's recent gig in Norwich for Jazz Journal, he was absolutely right to remark that the accepted norms of jazz appreciation couldn't be readily applied. Another recent show at London's Barbican was reportedly so successful with the "urban" contingent that before his three-hour set had even finished, Glasper had been booked for a "pop-up" set at the Hoxton Village Underground the following night.
Far from drawing in an audience from both worlds, it was very much your traditional jazz demographic that was in evidence. The hip young crowd schooled on "phat beats" had largely stayed at home, and the Old Fruitmarket certainly wasn't as busy as it had been the previous evening for Pharoah Sanders. Having said that, Glasper must have read Bruce's review because right from the off his richly inventive piano was heavily foregrounded and he was in crackling form.
Glasper brought just the basic quartet with no "star" guests or egos, and the evening unfolded as a relaxed jam with constantly changing dynamics and more than enough solos to keep the festival crowd happy. Yet Glasper didn't shy away from introducing the "urban" sounds that have been so central to his last two Blue Note albums. Casey Benjamin's vocoder flights were so heavily disguised that they were muffled beyond recognition, but there was no mistaking the urgent sense of longing and desire, and when he switched to alto and soprano saxophones he was one fiery customer.
A breakdown duet with drummer Mark Colenburg was very much rooted in "New Thing" expressionism, and quite a contrast to the relative conservatism of Sanders the previous evening. One of many outstanding events that littered a well-programmed set, it drew some of the loudest applause of the evening.
Glasper's unaccompanied spot half way through the performance recalled the more reflective moments of Jarrett's 1975 Köln epic, Derrick Hodge's solo bass spot was well thought through and free of clichés, and the phenomenal Colenburg was a deceptively complex polyrhythmic dynamo, always keeping it tight but never settling into predictable backbeats.
Far from being a forbidding "shock of the new", Glasper's set was rooted in all that is best about Mwandishi-era Hancock and electric Miles. Flowing organically for almost two hours, it was a richly detailed show that was sprinkled with many jewels. Where Glasper is most successfully refreshing the tradition is through his smart adoption of the vibrancy of today's urban language and the new possibilities offered by modern production techniques. Colenberg's closely mic-ed drums, for example, brought the smallest of details into vivid animation and allowed his impossibly tight grooves to erupt with a few well-timed flicks of the wrist. By the time we got to Benjamin's reprisal of Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit, the crowd were deeply engrossed and could have stood a third hour.
When all was said and done this had been an evening for the jazz connoisseur, albeit one with an open mind and an appreciation of the not so subtle electric revolution of the 70s. The slightly mixed feelings I'd had in approaching the gig quickly gave way to unqualified approval, although I've no doubt that Glasper could play an entirely different type of set for another audience. For one night at least Glasper had struck the perfect balance, showing that it may yet be possible to forge a viable fusion that can satisfy both contingents.
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