LIVE: Robert Glasper Trio @ Zankel Music Center, 2/26/16
While the Skidmore College student body does represent when jazz artists play the Zankel Music Center, the bulk of the crowd at Zankel jazz shows usually hews to the standard 45-to-55-year old demographic. Well, it must have been Opposite Night when the Robert Glasper Trio rolled into town, because it was nearly all students that packed Zankel from front to back and drank in in the Houston native’s dizzying demonstration of how far a piano trio can stretch the outside of the envelope.
Glasper first appeared on campus back in 2006, only a year after releasing his Blue Note debut Canvas; that was when Zankel was still a tree-lined parking lot, and Skidmore Jazz Institute’s concert series was held at the Bernhard Theater. Since then, Glasper has mixed jazz and hip-hop styles and sounds with the help of artists like Common, Macy Gray, Snoop Dogg and Lalah Hathaway. That singular mash-up earned his 2013 disc Black Radio a Grammy as Best R&B Album, and the follow-up Black Radio 2 was nominated for the same award in 2014. While no rappers followed Glasper and his longtime rhythm section – bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Damione Reid – onto Zankel’s massive stage, Glasper didn’t need them to take this genre to a totally different space.
“There’s people here,” he said, feigning surprise. “This is awesome!” Then his tone completely changed. “It’s cold,” he stated flatly, earning laughs from the crowd. “The Robert Glasper Trio, featuring ‘It’s cold!’” Glasper was dressed for Texas winter in a black leather jacket with a black wool cap, but he quickly warmed the place with his humor by playing and singing the first line of “Somewhere Out There,” and then busting on Reid when a Zankel staffer brought him a stack of black towels. (“What, are you makin’ side deals here? I thought we were a trio!”) That relaxed feeling ran throughout the 90-minute show as Glasper and Reid broke each other up before tunes and in mid-tune, from the opening take on Herbie Hancock’s “Tell Me a Bedtime Story” to the closer “Silly Rabbit,” which had Glasper referencing any number of tunes for a few seconds and then jumping back inside the groove he and Reid had established.
Reid’s drums were the musical equivalent of a hybrid drive on “Bedtime Story,” technically busy but relatively hushed as Glasper worked through complex, multi-layered runs that were slightly removed from Reid’s beat. Rather than taking one idea and expanding on it, the ideas came in lightning fast and disappeared just as quickly. The piece ended, earning big applause… and then started right up again, stirring more laughter as Glasper gestured for more of Archer’s bass in his monitor.
Glasper then worked in the clear, his right hand doing massive classical runs while his left hand dropped single-note/chord accents. Out of nowhere, he started playing a dead-serious piece of the Great American Songbook, only to change back to the chaotic classical mash eight measures later. He repeated this feat numerous times, taking a different page from the Songbook each time, and getting a bigger laugh every time he returned to the chaos. It was as if Glasper had been possessed by DJ Logic, and Glasper’s piano was Logic’s hard drive. While this sequence was a crowd-pleaser, Glasper continued to flash ideas in front of us throughout the evening. Sometimes the focus switched so fast, it was easy to wonder if you had blacked out.
As the evening fanned out and the trio went from piece to piece, the general sense was that Glasper was always playing an entirely different tune from Reid, with the only common denominators being the key and the time signature. Eventually I realized that Glasper and Reid were playing the acoustic equivalent of tape loops, with each loop coming from an entirely different place, and only Glasper could see how they knitted together. As a technical exercise, it was positively Herculean; as a listening experience, it was kind of like being buried in newborn kittens – kind of comfortable, but very confusing.
For me, the whole concept took away from the fact that all three musicians are top-notch on their respective instruments. It takes a Cray-II mind to not only invent this sound but to implement it, but Glasper accomplishes it in the same effortless way Stephen Curry hits half-court jumpers. Reid operates the drums on a specialized frequency that doesn’t require big noises or crashing sounds, though when he does drop the bomb, the ground shakes for miles around. Archer basically spent the night playing Steady Eddie while Glasper and Reid did their respective things, but when Archer did step into the spotlight, he had a quiet resonance akin to that of a very large man speaking softly but firmly, bringing you right to attention.
While I was repeatedly looking at my watch as the set ran down, the student body was totally down with everything Glasper created, giving the trio a prolonged standing ovation at the end of the show. Maybe it was the rappers that got the kids into Robert Glasper, but if that’s the gateway they needed to walk into the jazz world, I’m not complaining in any way, and it’s my fervent hope they stick around and discover everything this genre has to offer to the 21st century.