Robert Glasper released his first album Mood in 2004, and since then has led the way in balancing jazz freedoms with the loops, layers and energy of hip-hop and R&B. Earlier albums centred on his freewheeling piano trio and invested anything from Nirvana to the jazz catalogue with equal gravitas.
His latest CD, Black Radio, featuring his expanded band Experiment, is a tightly arranged change of pace. Vocal-heavy and guest-laden, it is more jazz-inflected than jazz-pure and has had commercial success – Glasper announced that it had debuted at number four in the hip-hop/R&B charts as well as number one in the jazz charts. But would it signal an end to the Glasper aesthetic, or would improvised loops and flowing lines resurface in live performance?
This Barbican gig showed Glasper trying to reconcile two somewhat contradictory camps. It opened with Casey Benjamin spookily vocoding the riff from John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and closed more than three hours later with a Benjamin burnout on soprano sax. In between Glasper’s band bent and stretched both form and line and made sure instrumental prowess was always to the fore.
And they created devious pathways and new textures. Mark Colenburg delivered chattering rhythms and oddly spaced beats; bassist Derrick Hodge played vibrating eulogies before thundering into full-force riffs. Herbie Hancock’s “Butterfly” was stretched to abstraction and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was transformed by souped-up harmonies and doctored beats.
But at other times, the band stuck to the script, particularly when covering songs from their new CD – a few beats drew squeals of recognition. Benjamin, electrifying on vocoder, was joined by vocalists Bilal and Lalah Hathaway, a surprise guest. Bilal’s edge-of-harmony pitching can sound somewhat strange – though his flute-backed “Letter to Hermione” was a highlight – but Hathaway was simply superb. She embellished “Cherish the Day” with smoky, low-register scat, and made “I’m Coming Back”, with light brush accompaniment, a moving celebration of fidelity. Glasper set the scene with moody swirls and bits of tomfoolery – put-ons, put downs and in-jokes – and then launched a long, uninhibited encore with two-handed dazzle and bags of invention. It was a fine balance, just about sustained.