R+R=NOW – Collagically Speaking Live(Blue Note. CD Review by John Bungey)
Amid all the obituaries of Chick Corea earlier in February one particular quote struck me. The pianist was speaking around the time that he played with Miles Davis to 600,000 rock-loving hippies – by far Miles’s biggest crowd ever – at the Isle of Wight festival in 1970. “The thing that interested me about rock and pop music was that communication with an audience appeared to be the entertainers’ sole reason for living,” he said. “And it struck me: ‘Gee, that’s interesting, I never thought of that.’ I no longer wanted just to satisfy myself. I wanted to connect with the world and make my music mean something to people.”
Today – for artists such as Robert Glasper or Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah playing jazz music in the age of hip-hop – you suspect that not a day goes past when they don’t think about how to spread their vision to a wide public without compromising the message. Which is where Glasper’s all-star collective R+R=NOW and its mix of 1970s jazz-funk, R&B and instrumental hip-hop comes in. As well as Scott on trumpet, the keyboardist is joined by a strong team: Terrace Martin, synths and sax; Derrick Hodge, bass; Taylor McFerrin, synths; and Justin Tyson, drums.
The group’s name was inspired by Nina Simone’s quote: “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.” “When you respond to that,” said Glasper on the sleeve of their debut, Collagically Speaking, “you can’t not be relevant, so R plus R equals Now.”
In fact, in the era of Black Lives Matters and Capitol crimes, the music the group creates over stuttering hip-hop beats is often remarkably mellow – as if the soulful, fluid layers of keyboards and electronica are offering an escape from the turbulence. There’s no echo of the free-jazz fury of the Civil Rights era. This live set, though, built round tunes from the 2018 debut, does inject extra muscle and drama and features some stand-out soloing.
On Change of Tone, Glasper, who’s usually a restrained improviser, delivers a blast of dexterity by turns playful and dazzling. Resting Warrior elongates into a 25-minute showpiece – the textures of early Weather Report over 21st-century beats. A thumb piano skitters over bubbling bass, Scott’s trumpet and Martin on alto sax are potent and only an overlong one-handed synth solo near the end lowers the temperature. There’s a version of Kendrick Lamar’s How Much a Dollar Cost (that Barack Obama favourite – video below), which has impassioned soloing in place of Lamar’s spoken tale of epiphany at a gas station. A couple of R&B ballads from the previous album still have a whiff of cheese – although Glasper does his bit to puncture the sweaty mood by stage-whispering “Sex … sex” at the start of Needed You Still. And who really needs vocoders? It’s like being told “I love you” by a Dalek. Rap verse from Omari Hardwick restores the humanity.
This album builds on the promise of the collective’s debut, when the players apparently more or less made up the album in the studio. Does the music reflect the times? Yes, in the way tunes absorb and meld current musical trends; you’d be hard-pushed, though, to find any sort of political message. That said, R+R = recommendable.