It really wasn't a question whether the Robert Glasper Experiment would be any good at the New Parish on Friday night – but how it would go about replicating the success of Black Radio, which recently won the Grammy for R&B album of the year.
That’s an album that features notable collaborators on each track – Erykah Badu, Lupe Fiasco, Bilal, Mos Def/Yasiin Bey, etc. – which could leave pianist Glasper a lot to make up for live. Going into the show I had a few theories: maybe the group would use pre-recorded vocal tracks in places, maybe up-and-coming vocalists would be pulled on stage from Oakland’s music scene, or maybe some surprise guest would be introduced. (Singer José James was nearby at the San Jose Jazz Winter Fest. Maybe he’d finish in a timely manner over there and stop by?)
Glasper didn’t do any of that. When he came to the stage close to midnight, he quickly* introduced the rest of the Experiment – Casey Benjamin, Chris Dave [Ed. note -- the drummer that night was actually Mark Colenburg], and “newly signed Blue Note recording artist” Derrick Hodge – and asked the completely packed crowd “Are there any Radiohead fans in the house tonight?” Keytar-playing Benjamin began singing “as your life passed before your eyes,” his voice given an alien quality via a vocoder, and Glasper began loosening up, playing the keys with occasional Mifune-esque shoulder shrugs, and taking the song further and further beyond the source materials.
Seemingly 10 minutes later, when I assumed the band had transitioned to some other song besides “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box,” the band collectively seemed to hone in on the familiar melody.
And then they stepped back, Glasper and company stood to the side, as Hodge played a hefty bass solo. Glasper has a bold personality and a clever streak, as was evident a year and a half ago at Sketchfest, where he improvised on level with Reggie Watts, musically and comically.** Yet most of the time, he’s not a domineering figure, and doesn’t demand attention.
The band reformed, moving into a spacy version of Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and then Sade’s “Cherish the Day,” a song featured on Black Radio with singer Lalah Hathaway. But the charming, beaming Benjamin provided computerized soul and a really smashing and free saxophone solo.*** Increasingly, Glasper and company provided a showcase for the vocalist, as they did on Black Radio.
Covering a lot of musical territory with album tracks like "Ah Yeah", and more interpretive covers including Bobby Caldwell's "Open Your Eyes"/Common's "The Light" and Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit,"**** the crowd embraced it, shouting out "Tell Me, Robert!" and other encouragements. The guy who shouted "Take your time!" midset had the right idea, but I think the band already had that in mind.
*Well, after mentioning the after-party at Legionnaire Saloon. Asked for more specific directions, Glasper said “I don’t know where the fuck it is. Just go.”
**Opposed to this year’s Sketchfest event, where Glasper, Watts, and drummer Chris Dave seemed strangely timid and, well, giggly. Maybe having something to do with this.
***Guy in the back, telling his friend that he could totally play that: full of shit or a talented musical unknown? Based on the girl standing next to him, constantly asking if anyone in the group was hungry, probably the former.
****The best surprise for me was the cover of soul jazz classic "Think Twice" by Donald Byrd, who died last month.