Dinner Party feat. Robert Glasper and Kamasi Washington
(Blue Note NYC, 20 October 2023. Review by Dan Bergsagel)
When you think of musical Supergroups, you likely think of 60s and 70s rock. So to have a trailed supergroup like Dinner Party take the stage at Blue Note seems somewhat noteworthy. In jazz, the particular constellations of musical personnel often seem more fleeting, and with celebrated musicians collaborating with each other regularly, the concept of a supergroup seems more nebulous. However, there doesn’t seem like a much better way than supergroup to describe the infrequent moments that Robert Glasper and Kamasi Washington take to the stage together. The genre-stretching pair have been at the forefront of many of the new routes that the Los Angeles jazz scene has been taking over the last ten years (Glasper moved there after the pandemic), and together with the rest of the Dinner Party collective, they supercharged a Friday night NYC crowd..
Before they started playing, Glasper was keen to point out that – perhaps unlike some of the more famous rock supergroups – they were all here together on stage because they were best friends as well as each other’s favourite musicians. And while one might have assumed that Dinner Party would be primarily playing from their two records as a group – concise tightly produced records – it was clear that this evening was a vehicle to peek into the larger jazz, hip-hop and R&B ecosystem that Glasper and longtime collaborator Terrace Martin have assembled, filled with vocal guests and extensive enthralling improvisation. Thankfully for the audience, as part of the fifth edition of the slyly named ‘Robtober’ – Robert Glasper’s annual October residency at Blue Note – there were plenty of their wider LA scene friends in town for the show.
A shining example of this beyond-Dinner Party approach to the gig was Find You – a Robert Glasper Experiment piece. Animated by a showpiece bass opening from Burniss Travis – plucking and strumming, Find You started with an extended chordal, sustained and multilayered introduction that was longer than the entirety of many of the recorded tunes on Dinner Party’s EP and album. After a recognizable vocal synth melody from Glasper, we were then treated to the first of a series of trademark Kamasi Washington solos throughout the set – this one starting leisurely, patiently building a structure, with the tenor reverberating over a rocky backing. Fast and liquid, Washington eventually breaks a sweat, before a carefully controlled Justin Tyson on drums pulls down the song’s curtain with a perfect fade.
Next, Tyson takes center-stage pairing complicated polyrhythmic lines – endlessly engaging even as the more you try and decode them – with wonky and slick keys work from Glasper, as he busily slips around over the percussive energy. While Glasper’s charisma holds the show together, the most electrifying moments involve Washington. Near the tail of the set Washington’s tenor and Martin’s alto combine to shadow each other tightly before they each split off for an improvisational turn. Over Tyson’s delicately laid afrobeat shuffle, Washington slowly constructs another screaming sax climax, working up a frenzy via a series of false summits, each time nearly running out of rope before taking a sideways route and rebuilding to a euphoric peak.
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For all the live-performance exhilaration, the crowd were given pauses for breath. Dinner Party’s recent 2023 album Enigmatic Society is a comparatively restrained record imbued with an overall significantly calmer vibe. At times the live show reached for that calm, too; the breathy appearance of Amber Navran – from neo-soul Moonchild and featuring with Glasper the two previous nights of Robtober – bringing a slower moment singing Been On My Mind (a piece from Glasper’s other supergroup R+R=NOW). The closing handful of tunes – Dinner Party sharing the stage with another LA-based friend, Gallant – were more straightforward R&B, including Breathe and 311! (a separate Terrace Martin and Gallant project), and Freeze Tag from their 2020 EP. The real hint to which side of Dinner Party are turning up – the freewheeling virtuoso jazz grooves or the overqualified R&B backing band – is in the complexity of the drumbeat: if Justin Tyson is being challenged to do something, then this is a song to lean-in and pay attention to.
Before Dinner Party took to the stage there was an appetizer-style 20 minute set from DJ Jahi Sundance. This was slick and eclectic, but suffered a little from the environment – a DJ set works better in a bar or stand-up venue than a traditional table-service jazz bar. The misaligned formality coupled with the extremely tight packing of the audience in the space made this a slightly awkward interlude before the main event. The Blue Note is a very popular venue with excellent programming, and in an attempt to allow as many jazz-lovers as possible to enjoy each show, they have squeezed tables and chairs into every available square inch of space inside, including corner spots without direct sight of the stage (for an 8pm show I was advised to get on line outside the venue at 5pm to avoid this tragic outcome). Aside from a rush hour subway journey, this was the closest I have come to sitting in a stranger’s lap for a very long time. Claustrophobics be warned!