LJF 2016: Robert Glasper Experiment

Francis Graham-Dixon enjoys the pop, R&B, dance, rock, hip-hop and jazz assortment of multi-faceted pianist and composer Robert Glasper

The lighting dims to a back projection of Bruce Lee explaining his life philosophy, concluding: "...To express oneself honestly, my friend". The same mantra surely fits the musical trajectory of Robert Glasper (pictured right), multi-faceted pianist and composer, bandleader and producer. The Experiment continue to mix up pop, R&B, dance, rock, hip-hop and jazz. In the end, Glasper would argue, the possibilities are open to exploit musical overlaps in order to make good music, however it is constructed.

In many ways, this was the most satisfying of all the Experiment’s gigs I’ve been lucky to see. What’s obvious is that these accomplished instrumentalists are at their fluent best when improvising, and it is their jazz pedigree that sets them apart from many others who have tried, and often fallen short in attempting to criss-cross musical genres convincingly.

The set was built around their new studio album, ArtScience, another step into fresh territory and a radical departure from the successes of Black Radio II and its 2012 Grammy antecedent. What we learned tonight and from the new record is that Casey Benjamin, playing with Glasper since high school days in Houston, has a wonderfully expressive voice, in the past masked by his over-reliance on the vocoder, which here was used sparingly and thus to more telling effect. He played alto and soprano saxophones with growing power and conviction as the band eased through the gears into full-on jazz improvisation. Take No One Like You, superficially a catchy pop hook harnessed into a polyrhythmic mesh of jazz and R&B played at Formula 1 pace - its bridge, stunning - a fork in the road and Glasper, from reflective beginnings, steadily built his acoustic piano solo to a crescendo. More of this, I thought.

Also new was the thrilling performance of drummer Mark Colenburg. His playing throughout the two and a half hour set mixed power and precision with remarkable looseness and subtlety of timbre and expression. He can play anything, one of the elite of modern drummers effortlessly shifting between different styles and producing a sound unique to them. Also novel was a London audience treated to a generous helping of Glasper’s emotionally charged keyboard improvisations adding lustre to his signature fills – a complete performance.

It is as if Glasper on stage is most in the zone when he is free to just play, confirmed by an outstanding rendition of Herbie Hancock’s Tell Me A Bedtime Story – 25 minutes of group improvisation and a dazzling 10-minute plus Rhodes solo which eclipsed even the maestro’s own on Quincy Jones’ 1978 Sounds... And Stuff Like That. The piece was performed against another black and white projection of 70s vintage Hancock, fading to Glasper embarking on his solo voyage, as if to emphasise that while lazy comparisons continue to be made between the two Glasper’s voice is his own and all the more interesting for it.

The group’s rock anthem, Written In Stone, survived too the transition from studio to stage, with fellow-Houstonian Mike Severson’s guitar a highlight, before morphing into Roxanne – another taboo transgressed, but it worked, with Benjamin’s voice contrasting with Sting’s supposedly singular interpretation. Less surprising but thrillingly, the band moved from You And Me, featuring a guest appearance by A Tribe Called Quest’s Jarobi White, into Benjamin’s vamp on Stevie Wonder and Susaye Green's I Can’t Help It. J Dilla references were several, the slow melancholic hip-hop of Fall In Love featuring another memorable acoustic piano solo. His Find A Way was shoehorned into a final medley built around the Isley Brothers’ Summer Breeze, another wonderful Rhodes break here, through Donald Byrd’s Think Twice, and snatches from Black Radio II – Somebody Else and Let It Ride.

One or two caveats remain. Some more structured pop/dance-inspired and successful tunes on ArtScience, a key component of the album’s character and quality, got lost in translation into live performance – Day To Day, the foot-tapping single, was too pedestrian, the slow hip-hop hypnotic groove of Thinkin Bout You lacking in conviction.

The second bugbear was the sloppy sound balance, repeating the error marring, for this observer, his 2012 Royal Festival Hall gig. Again, ludicrously over-amplified bass threatened to drown out the three soloists as well as the efforts of DJ Jahee Sundance on turntables and samples.

Severson, who has played with Glasper for the past 20 years on guitar, was a new and interesting addition to the established Experiment imprimatur. But too many of his sometimes Hendrix-infused runs, particularly on Find You, a compelling amalgam of rock and hip-hop, were submerged beneath the booming bass of another talented Texan, Burniss Travis II. That said, the band’s dynamic interplay and eclectic set prevailed and we await the next chapter in their edgy experimentation.

Photo by Bruce Lindsay

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