Review: Robert Glasper Experiment

Francis Graham-Dixon sees Glasper's Experiment come of age in a two-hour show at the Eventim Apollo in Hammersmith

When I reviewed Robert Glasper's 2012 London Jazz Festival concert, I sensed that his Experiment was yet to integrate brimming individual talent and multiple musical identities with a coherent live performance. The originality was there for all to hear, but was let down that night by poor sound balance, or simply playing too loud to give the music a chance to breathe.

Since then, however, they have given us their studio release, Black Radio 2 Deluxe (2013), an exceptional demonstration of how to produce what in my view is as close as it gets to the perfect record, an unbroken succession of dynamic and memorable compositions seamlessly integrating jazz, hip-hop, soul and R&B – a more than worthy companion to its pioneering antecedent, Black Radio (2012).

For their one-off date at the Eventim Apollo, we were promised surprises – which with Glasper usually entail appearances by guest vocalists – to add sweep and colour to the musical voyage; more of that later. Here was the perfect opportunity to hear the progression in the music over the past year or so. We were not to be disappointed.

The Experiment played their hearts out for well over two hours with a performance of great panache, brio and sustained emotional intensity that did them justice. The sound mixing was appreciably better. The musicians obviously delighted in freeing themselves from the discipline of the studio, and reconfiguring many of the deceptively catchy tunes, most from the new CD, stretching out into virtuoso improvisations that vibrated on the edge, which as Glasper puts it, are "a little random at times". So much the better, for Glasper's exquisite use of minor chords and his shimmering runs were much more to the fore than the fleeting glimpses we were starved with at the LJF gig.

Moving deftly between acoustic and Rhodes, sometimes embroidered with synthesiser accents, the drum and bass groove of Let It Ride featured soaring solos on acoustic and Rhodes, two of many that lit up the night, and also included a mesmeric Mark Colenburg drum solo. Big Girl Body showed what an expressive alto player Casey Benjamin is. His solo swirled and swooped with an intensity and focus that revealed his empathy with some of jazz saxophone's greats – Coleman, Rollins, Ayler even. His tone, though, is like no other, and it is a pity that we did not hear more as this showcases his great musicianship to greater effect than the sometimes over-used vocoder, long synonymous with the Experiment's stage performances. Perversely, it worked well on Lovely Day, also notable for a beautifully constructed bass solo by Derrick Hodge.

Colenburg's drumming was perfectly synced into the changing rhythms and tempo of the set – an exquisite exposé of understated power and swing combining the elasticity of jazz, staccato hip-hop beats, loops – this is one fabulous drummer, perfectly complemented by Hodge's spare and insistent bass lines, let loose when the stage emptied for him to deconstruct I Stand Alone with some dazzling time changes. Raheem's towering vocal performances of Worries and Big Girl Body sat happily alongside Dwele's and Eric Roberson's respective soul-searching versions on Black Radio 2. He later re-emerged to vamp on Ah Yeah, a standout track from the earlier CD featuring Musiq Soulchild and Chrisette Michele.

Other highlights included a rip-roaring take on Daft Punk's Get Lucky and Common's The Light. Laura Mvula's interpretation of Calls did not quite reach the heights of Jill Scott's version, but this is a minor gripe. Emeli Sandé, who has left her distinctive studio imprint on Somebody Else, was reunited with the band to give an equally exuberant stage performance full of presence. The set closed with Smells Like Teen Spirit, a fitting anthem of a finale which required no encore. This Experiment worked like a dream. Can't wait for the next instalment.

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