Review: Robert Glasper at LJF 2012

Francis Graham-Dixon reviews the Robert Glasper Experiment at the Royal Festival Hall on the first night of the 2012 London Jazz Festival and finds that whilst Glasper is super-talented he has yet to locate the best musical context to present his particular and multi-talented persona on stage

It is a sad reflection of the modern-day obsession with labels and branding that contemporary music has become so infected with catch-all, ultimately misleading descriptors of sound and further confused by critical absolutes as a lazy measure of defining "success". Glasper is undoubtedly a serious and talented musician. Suffice it to say that a lot of ink has been spilled on the man who, we are told, is managing to bridge the so-called musical divide between jazz and urban hip-hop. One newspaper listing suggested: "This street-smart young Texan is jazz's main beacon for the future." Another: "...the new Herbie Hancock" – please. The MC welcomed him to the stage as "The Renaissance Man of Jazz".

I left tonight's London Jazz Festival opener unconvinced. It is clear to me that whilst Glasper is super-talented, equally adept at jazz, hip-hop, rap, soul, funk – yes, more labels – he has yet to locate the best musical context to present his particular and multi-talented persona on stage. For my money, hip-hop/rap may not be the right vehicle to do him and his compositional originality justice. It has worked really well in the studio; Black Radio, his most recent CD, is proof positive of that. Here one can achieve a perfectly seamless, yet still dynamic balance of sound, by turns challenging, experimental and enduring. This live Experiment, however, was a disjointed affair.

The musical conundrum was obvious after the opening and strongest piece, featuring a magisterial piano solo that scaled the exuberant heights of technical mastery and emotional pitch – here, the band simmered and shimmered brightly. This was followed by a stand-out guest appearance by Viluna Malinga, once collaborator with Basement Jaxx. Her voice was a joy, a fifth instrument, the perfect complement to the consistently inventive and skin-tight Mark Colenburg on drums, Derrick Hodge on bass, Casey Benjamin on vocoder, synthesiser and alto saxophone (the soprano stayed untouched), and Glasper.

DoomFrom then on the evening unfolded with Glasper's range and personality sadly increasingly diminished, to my ear, into playing the part of accompanist and colourist, his solos all too infrequent. But this was not the keyboard landscape rooted in Bitches Brew or Mwandishi suggested in a recent JJ review. His sound is different, more circular, less stabbing in its riffs. We were teased with interlude snatches, glimpses of his musical antecedents – an Evans phrase here, an Ellington ripple there. Then it was back to another guest, this time, the rapper, Doom, or Darth Vader in disguise (pictured).

Frustration grew as attention was forcibly diverted to a constant surfeit of Benjamin's painfully over-bearing vocoder, making me pine for 1978, and Hancock's Sunlight album, a first in showing how to make judicious use of a musical disguise to conceal a lack of vocal range. Musically, it just did not cut it in Glasper's unit. His alto when played through the synths fared a lot better. Heresy I know, as Glasper's project, we are told, is all about not looking back and reinventing sounds for now, and the future.

This brings me on to the technical stuff. For a venue so venerated for its wonderful acoustics, this was an opportunity missed by the band to showcase more of their musicality and less of their cool, of which there was plenty on show. The sound balance was a travesty – perversely,  apart from the drums – the bass boomed, the electric acoustic piano struggled not to go out of tune at top volume, and as for the vocoder/synth . . . enough said. But, the audience loved it all, especially when told London is his No.1. For me, the evening felt like a man in his comfort zone, and where's the risk in that? I'll buy the new CD, though.

Your Comments:

Posted by The Arbiter, 11 November 2012, 0:56 (1 of 12)

I think the reviewer has been very generous: Robert Glasper has a problem. He appeared bored and can't fool all of the people all of the time. If he continues to hurtle down this blind alley he'll soon lose the largely uneducated audience (that the reviewer alluded to) and have to back track to retain the remainder. The sound was awful and the over-use of vocoder gave the game away for me: These guys are still very wet behind the ears. I am a fan of his studio work but last night was definitely a case of "Emperor's New Clothes". I also witnessed a constant trickle of people leaving early throughout the performance. 3/10 at best.
Posted by Kim, 11 November 2012, 11:35 (2 of 12)

I believe Robert Glasper is one of the most exciting musicians at the moment. I saw his band at The Barbican earlier this year, the sound was just right, the energy levels built through the set, particularly when Lalah Hathaway joined. And the excitement built to a crescendo with a truly amazing Teen Spirit. In contrast this concert was completely marred by the appalling sound. It felt like the subwoofers had run amok. The amazingly subtle drumming was reduced to painful bass drum and snare and the whole sound was submerged below an unpleasantly distorted sub bass every time Derrick Hodge (who usually gets a great sound from his instrument) played the lower notes of his bass guitar. There was a noticeable piano-sized gap on the right of the stage. I wonder if this was indicative of the technical issues. Robert's sense of humour was evident throughout but his piano suffered from distortion and there was a nasty hiss throughout. This concert could have been so much better, perhaps on stage it was? Or perhaps my seat in the third row was particularly badly affected. The support act Phantom Limb were unaffected by the poor sound and gave an amazing performance despite a missing drummer.
Posted by Mark Gilbert, Editor, 11 November 2012, 12:03 (3 of 12)

Earlier JJ Glasper reviews from Glasgow (re. Mwandishi era Hancock) and Norwich may add context.
Posted by Tatty Cracknell, 12 November 2012, 10:03 (4 of 12)

The sound may have been boomy but the collaborations in RG's Experiment are awesome. He is the humble brains behind the band and obviously doesn't feel the need to be the centre of attention, his sublime chords always perfectly placed and they say all that needs to be said. This work brings the word 'crossover' out from the negative connotations it has had in the past. Vula stole the show though - what a voice.
Posted by Mark Gilbert, Editor, 12 November 2012, 10:16 (5 of 12)

Nothing negative about "crossover" round these parts, Tatty - we love it when done naturally and well. Surely the essence of jazz development in the last golden era? Check out JJ for reviews of masters of the art such as Wayne Krantz, Mike Stern, John McLaughlin, Steve Smith, Marcus Miller, Studio Tan (though the term may horrify them).
Posted by Jason, 12 November 2012, 13:08 (6 of 12)

I agree with Kim above in that Glasper is one of the most exciting musicians of the current generation. He is a pianist and composer of considerable skill and range with his jazz trio and an innovator with his experimental band. I also saw them at The Barbican and Village Underground earlier in the year and this one was slightly disappointing in comparison partially because of the sound issues but, after a lengthy tour, the band seemed a little devoid of their usual energy. I do wonder if some of this may have been caused by having to work to a specific set length (in comparison, they happily played for nearly three hours at The Barbican) as well as a lack of guest artists of the strength of Lalah Hathaway and Bilal who appeared with them earlier in the year. Doom's appearance was a low point of the gig and Glasper's collaborations in general, I was living in hope that Yasiin Bey would make an appearance and save the day! I strongly believe that Glasper should continue to push the boundaries and experiment with this band but I would also love to see him return to and release future albums with his jazz trio where his imagination, skill and touch really truly flourish in my opinion and as he so ably demonstrated during his solos on Friday night.
Posted by Pompitous, 12 November 2012, 13:51 (7 of 12)

I'm not sure I was at the same gig as many of the writers above! I sat halfway up the front block and thought the sound was immaculate, to the extent that I personally congratulated the sound engineer afterwards. There was definitely a terrific low end, exactly as on the record, and everything was crystal clear. I guess that the bass level could have caused problems of resonance elsewhere in the room but where I was (admittedly near the sound desk) the mix was powerful and exciting. With all the band showing fantastic technique, taste and groove, the gig was the best I've seen in a very long time.
Posted by Mark Gilbert, Editor, 13 November 2012, 11:47 (8 of 12)

Jason, it would be interesting to hear specifically how you characterise RG's innovations. Can you describe them in musical terms? Could you also list the boundaries he needs to continue to push against?
Posted by Mark Gilbert, Editor, 13 November 2012, 11:53 (9 of 12)

Jason, it would be interesting to hear how you quantify RG's innovations. What, musically speaking, are they? Do you consider him an innovator on the same terms as Herbie Hancock?
Posted by Melody, 15 November 2012, 19:18 (10 of 12)

This is precisely the sort of over-analytical discussion RG wants to get away from. I was there - it was amazing. For me no one can compare.
Posted by Mark Gilbert, Editor, 17 November 2012, 13:58 (11 of 12)

Melody, you mean there is nothing worth discussing in RG's music, or perhaps even in jazz in general? Or only as much as constitutes unqualified praise?
Posted by Melody, 26 November 2012, 12:35 (12 of 12)

He brings something new. He's mixing it up and exciting a new generation. Sometimes when you attempt to explain why something hits the spot - it doesn't work. He's got the charisma that brings the right people together and matches them to the right tunes - and puts beautifully phrased piano bits behind. The result is the best of music that's out there. I hope he's got enough left - to do it again.
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