Live: Robert Glasper Brings His Glow To The Highline Ballroom


Robert Glasper Experiment
Highline Ballroom
Tuesday, February 28

Better than: Sitting at home with the radio.

“About what time does ?uestlove finish up at the Fallon show? It couldn’t have been that long ago, right?”

That query, overheard amid the big beats pumping from the Highline Ballroom’s system as I entered its near-capacity music room, was the first sign that I’d entered what might be termed the “Glasper Glow.” Its namesake, pianist Robert Glasper, wouldn’t hit the stage for another hour or so, but his presence was undeniable even in the absence of the rolling keys that are his signature sound. Scanning the space, another question came to mind: What other jazz musician (an identity Glasper doesn’t seem to question, despite its checkered commercial history) would be able pull together such a youthful, multihued crowd, all of whom were on board to hear improvisation, silky urban-contemporary smoothness, and beats-to-the-rhyme? The star power attached to Glasper’s gestalt was already visible on the bandstand; the aforementioned Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson was at stage left, playing warmup DJ for Glasper’s record release showcase within hours of punching out from the Roots’ “day job” at 30 Rock.

Not for nothing does Black Radio, Glasper’s fourth album, feel like the pianist’s statement of creative unification. His records have edged toward this soothingly heady synthesis for some time now, attempting to reconcile his benchmark skills in acoustic postbop with his high-flying keyboard excursions backing up the Roots, Yasiin Bey (the artist formerly known as Mos Def) and soul singer Bilal, whom Glasper met when both were in the New School jazz program. It remains to be seen whether the Glasper Glow will make its way to the pop airwaves, but last night was the first of two evenings scripted to get many of the album’s special guest stars (Bey and Bilal among them) onstage with the Experiment’s core electric quartet (Casey Benjamin, sax and vocals; Derrick Hodge, bass; Mark Colenburg, drums).

It’s perhaps fitting, though, that the four-piece opened up with three crowd-pleasers scripted for the imaginations of futurists unthreatened by tradition. First, Benjamin fed his voice through a vocoder and tripped out the crowd while repeating the mantra from the “Acknowledgement” section of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, chords swelling up as Colenburg’s rhythms raced. Glasper then revealed his penchant for finding harmonic gems where few look: Roy Ayers’ “A Tear To A Smile” and Herbie Hancock’s disco-era “Trust Me” retained their danceability while entering freewheeling improv territory.

The special-guest portion of the show suggested how much Glasper’s sense of pacing has benefited from being onstage with the Roots. Like ?uestlove, he ran things soul-revue style, programmed as much for contrast as sinuousness. In the absence of album guest Erykah Badu, Chrisette Michele (Glasper’s mate from Maxwell’s touring band) sang the lilting staple “Afro-Blue” and proved to be formidable at scatting atop Benjamin’s airy flute curlicues. Bilal’s pleading version of David Bowie’s “Letter to Hermione” and singer Lalah Hathaway’s hip take on Sadé’s “Cherish The Day” (a highlight) inhabited both sides of the bona fide rap interlude, Bey’s hard-edged reprise of the album’s title track. “Radio… suckas never play me”, the MC snarled, over the one groove all evening that maintained its relationship to the dancefloor from start to finish.

It’s worth noting that the one component of Glasper’s music meant to imply progressivism might end up suggesting the opposite. Benjamin uses vocoder liberally both live and in a few spots on the album, and though it constitutes Glasper’s not-so-veiled homage to jazz-crossover pioneer Herbie Hancock, the vocal wah-wah seemed to ground what just last year I heard as a brilliant instrumental reworking of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. The timing belonged to late beatmeister J-Dilla, but the warmth is signature Glasper, reharmonized choruses rising to keep pace with the rhythm-section’s fast/slow, frenetic/meditative underpinning. Fortunately, Hathaway and Bilal were on also hand to give Cobain’s lyrics the much-needed gravitas and snap us back into the present.

Critical bias: I used to worry that Glasper would hit the big time and stop playing acoustic music.

Random notebook dump: Tonight’s special guests include Lupe Fiasco, Ledisi and Meshell Ndegeocello.

Set list:
A Love Supreme (Acknowledgement)
A Tear To A Smile
Trust me
Letter to Hermione
Black Radio
Cherish the day
Ah Yeah w/Chrisette Michele
Smells Like Teen Spirit
All Matter w/ Bilal & Gregoire Maret