Robert Glasper Trio + Vijay Iyer Trio
Skirball Center at NYU
Thursday, April 28
Better than: Having another tornado warning to contend with.
What’s the difference between “jazz fame” and the kind of recognition that gets you on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon? Whatever it is, it wasn’t enough to produce a jam-packed house for this splendid double bill of new-jack jazz piano. That’s not to say that NYU’s big hall was empty by any stretch; you’d hardly have noticed until you spied the rows of vacancies up in the cheap seats. But what the turnout suggested is that last night that distinction was probably clearer to Vijay Iyer–who voiced it while taking his bows and readying the applauding crowd for fellow keys whiz Robert Glasper–than to the folks who showed up for a rare opportunity to hear both pianists and simultaneously check the hype on jazz’s next wave.
Given that Iyer was once on track to be a physicist (and has the doctorate to prove it), right here is where I’m s’posed to turn how relative such distinctions are into a joke about the theory of relativity. But Glasper, who’d sat in with his sometime employers the Roots on TV the previous evening, had all the wit anyone needed. “Did y’all see me last night?” he asked as he sat down at the piano, his good-natured smile feigning excitement. Silence. “Yup, that’s fame. I’ll have to remember that the next time I’m riding with “F”–that’s what we call Fallon, in case y’all didn’t know.”
Sometimes it’s easy to get the sense that jazz endures simply because mainstream folk like to say the word more than they wanna hear the actual music, but not during this bill. It’s true that to some degree both Iyer and Glasper are garnering recognition well beyond the jazz community because they share a willingness to explore musics well beyond the confines of swing. Iyer has covered Stevie Wonder and A Tribe Called Quest; Glasper has worked with Q-Tip and threw a Wonder’s “Golden Lady” into last night’s set. If there were folks in attendance who weren’t necessarily jazzers, you certainly couldn’t tell by the response to the evening’s knottiest improvisations. Iyer opened his set with an unrecorded piece called “Optimism” that rumbled along stormily as bassist Stephan Crump bowed and drummer Marcus Gilmore kicked the bass drum into a rhythm that announced the minor-key sunniess hinted at in the title. The audience clearly warmed to the suspense-filled group dynamic that prevailed for much of the set; Iyer was either two-handing the melodies and fitting rapid-fire single-note lines between the beat on “Cardio” and “‘Lude,” or waxing lyrical on the trio-ized version of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” (he recorded it unaccompanied on Solo, his most recent album).
If Glasper’s unerringly magnificent set seemed less avant, it was in no way more conventional. As a pianist who makes a good bit of his living backing up hip-hoppers, Glasper slips his expressionistic flurries in on a cushion of churchy groove. The head-bobbing that started on Iyer’s watch tripled while the Glasper rhythm team of Alan Hampton (bass) and Jamire Williams (drums) pushed the pianist’s pieces to just this side of danceable. Glasper started two offerings by drumming on the piano lid, feeding a Morse-code like beat to the rhythm section before rolling with it, fleshing out the chords. He reharmonized Herbie Hancock’s “I Have A Dream” before throwing down on the pièce de résistance: A reading of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” that unfolded like some kind of gorgeous melding of Hancock and Donny Hathaway…and then climaxed in a hail of sanctified rhythmic waves. “Yeah, that’s what we call ‘Rob G style’,” he said to rousing applause. “I can call it that now that I’ve been on Fallon.”
Critical bias: I dig recognizing the old school within the new school.
Overheard: “[Iyer] said the drummer was born in Hollis, Queens, but he hadn’t seen the birth certificate.”
Random notebook dump: Marcus Gilmore threw a bit of his Grandpa Roy Haynes’ “snap crackle” into that last drum solo as Iyer shook his head, laughing.
Robert Glasper setlist:
Butterfly/Rise And Shine
I Have A Dream (Herbie)
Smells Like Teen Spirit
Yes I’m Country (And That’s OK)Yes I’m Country (And That’s OK)
Vijay Iyer setlist:
Darn That Dream