Robert Glasper Experiment, Hammersmith Apollo, London – review

Robert Glasper has spent more than a decade working at a jazz/hip-hop merger that does more than add jazzy solos to funky beats. His first efforts peaked with cross-genre references and the pianist trading beats with mercurial drummer Chris Dave. The Experiment quartet, formed in 2011, shifts the emphasis somewhat. The beats are more solid, saxophonist/vocoder specialist Casey Benjamin provides a central focus and Glasper takes more of a backroom role.

Robert Glasper Experiment have released two albums packed with big names from hip-hop and R&B. On these releases the live vibe remained – Glasper still dished out riffs and jazzy chords seemingly on the spur of the moment – but pre-set beats triumphed over the flow and detail of a jazz rhythm section.

This long, single-set gig told a different story. It began with Glasper’s dark, heavily voiced chords supporting Benjamin’s raspy delivery of the title track of Black Radio, the band’s first album. And then, for nearly an hour, they re-interpreted songs from their guest-laden albums without pause.

Benjamin covered lead vocals on vocoder, shattering his eerie falsetto cry into synthesised fragments, and each musician got a showcase. Equally fluent on sax, Benjamin moved in and out of harmony with a bright sound, hard syncopation and rhythmic edge. Drummer Mark Colenburg rattled, rolled and played with time. Glasper’s voicings and lines were always on the move. Highlights were Derrick Hodge, introducing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” with fleet flamenco-inspired bass over low-note whoops, and the band’s complete re-imagining of “Lovely Day”.

Guests vocalists followed – Laura Mvula covered Jill Scott’s “Calls”, Emeli Sandé her own “Somebody Else” and Raheem DeVaughn delivered two songs and a stunning wordless jam that conjured the spirit of Marvin Gaye. And then banter and frolics ended with Cindy Lauper’s “Time After Time”. A final segue zipped through a handful of tunes without much fuss, but this seemed unnecessary, before an up-tempo finale pulled things round.

Glasper’s Experiment keep the stars in check and the jazz on the boil. With Glasper at the helm, the group have their own distinctive sound. They just needed a little fine-tuning at the end.

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