Robert Glasper’s newest release, Black Radio, has a lot of great stuff on it, but one of the things it doesn’t have much of is extended improvisational sections. This show at the Egg featured material from the record but it also whet the audience’s appetite for the extended meditative improvisations that Glasper and his group are so well-known for, as well as their inspired renditions of covers by the likes of Nirvana, Radiohead and Stevie Wonder.
The quartet featured the incomparable Casey Benjamin, whose calculated forays into electronic sound manipulation, via vocoder and various other sound modules, was superb. His alto sax screamed through a harmonizer as he blew scathing lines during what turned into a duo with drummer Mark Collenburg on “Cherish the Day.” When Benjamin sang, he was almost always processed by a vocoder, with various synth sounds transforming the sound of his natural voice. Although the words he sang were not always comprehensible, his voice essentially acted as another lead instrument and helped give this group their exceptional sound.
Collenburg has replaced veteran drummer Chris Dave for this tour, and it seems to be working out just fine. His extended solos were melodic and fiercely precise. His sticks fluttered like hummingbird wings as they made their way around the kit at a breakneck tempo. He was able to deviate from straight time by employing the old J Dilla lag and placing the breaks and accents in unorthodox places. The “swing” that many jazz purists refer to as necessary for categorizing music as “jazz” was not overly present in Collenburg’s playing, but there was syncopation and anticipation in a big way. His playing never sunk into any groove for too long before committing surprising changes.
Despite claims by some critics that the Robert Glasper Experiment is not “jazz,” just the opposite can be argued. The music produced by Glasper’s group relates directly to the time in which it is created and thus reflects all the weight of social and political circumstances. It fuses beats and grooves associated with popular dance music of the time with the headier theoretic sensibilities that are meant primarily to be listened to. This is exactly what the pioneers of bebop like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonius Monk did in their own time—preserving the swing beat associated with popular big-band dance music, layering headier improvisation on top of it in a small-group setting. Glasper’s group absolutely defines the vanguard of modern creative improvisational music, and does so in a way that would have made any of the pioneers proud. Jazz, hip-hop, gospel, electronica, rock and pop all lead here.
It’s no surprise that Glasper finds himself in the great legacy of Bud Powell, Thelonius Monk, Herbie Hancock, and all of the great pianists who have recorded on legendary Blue Note Records. Bassist Derrick Hodge was also announced as a “recently signed Blue Note recording artist.” He used the ultra-low sub-bass sounds and sensibilities most closely associated with hip-hop but showed a much lighter side on his extended intro to “Cherish the Day,” as he gently strummed the audience to mesmerization.