London Jazz Festival Review: Robert Glasper Experiment

Robert Glasper
Photo Credit: Roger Thomas

Robert Glasper Experiment
(LJF, Royal Festival Hall. Fri. 9th Nov. 2012. Review by Alison Bentley)

‘I feel like jazz needs a big-ass slap,’ virtuoso pianist and enfant terrible Robert Glasper told Downbeat Magazine this year. ‘I’ve gotten bored with jazz to the point where I wouldn’t mind something bad happening.’ This sold-out gig was definitely bad in a good way. Glasper’s 2012 best-selling CD Black Radio has a gorgeous neo-soul feel, but this gig was more experimental, as befits the band’s name.

Glasper’s reluctant to play older tunes that a young audience won’t connect with, and he works with musicians active in both hip-hop and jazz worlds. Electric bassist Derrick Hodge has recorded with Mulgrew Miller, Terence Blanchard and Gretchen Parlato, as well as rappers Common and Kanye West. Sade’s Cherish was prefaced with a longer bass solo than is often heard on jazz gigs. He melded flamenco phrasing with sustained harmonics- then into slap bass and succulent sub-tones that filtered up through the floor. There was a strong rapport between Glasper and Casey Benjamin, who sang ethereally though a vocoder, simultaneously playing subliminal sounds on keytar. Benjamin’s alto sax had synth harmonies, like Brecker’s EWI; he played wildly- shades of Evan Parker, or even Hendrix.

Just as we were about to drown in spacey electronica, on came one of the highlights of the gig: Vula, from the London Community Gospel choir. She’s recorded with Dizzee Rascal, but it was the first time she’d sung with this band, and she sounded magnificently at home. Glasper improvised some exquisite phrases in response to her deep soulful sounds and passionate, daringly high embellishments.

Glasper’s a consummate entertainer, and his playful solo piano interludes were like jazz samples on a hip-hop album. A hint of A-Train; a throwaway snatch of Coltrane’s Giant Steps solo; bars of ragtime Swanee River; an extended Cecil Taylor-style solo piece; plaintive gospelly grace notes; touches of Jarrett and Ravel, with perversely atonal contrasting hands over a 2-chord tango. Glasper just goes wherever his creative imagination tells him to. If it tells him to play one repeated note, then that’s the perfectly placed note that’ll lift the whole song.

He had a Romantic, emotive appeal in the gentle anima of Lift Off, with its sweet triplets. Peerless drummer Mark Colenburg (he’s worked with Q-Tip and Kenny Garrett) drew the biggest cheer for his solo here: hip-hop grooves with impossibly complex fills, saving the crash cymbals for a breathtaking finale. The dreamy Ah Yeah (Glasper: ‘for my laydeez’) had vocoder and bass harmonising hypnotically. Glasper melted into sublime spread 9th and sus chords for Dillalude, his tribute to the late rapper J Dilla (from his wittily-titled new EP Black Radio Recovered.) The audience called out their appreciation for the groove itself.

The artistic animus of metal-masked NY Rapper MF DOOM was an electrifying contrast. He rapped like a drummer. His surreal alliterative lyrics in his own Figaro and Rhinestone Cowboy recalled Allen Ginsberg’s poetry. The darker side of Romanticism: Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit had Glasper playing an uneasy chattering marimba synth sound over searing electronics.

The audience (jazz-lovers and hip-hoppers of all ages) stood to applaud. We’d been taken through so many emotions that there was a real sense of catharsis. In the words of MF DOOM: ‘… feel him in ya heart chakra, chart toppa…’

Categories: miscellaneous

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