Many fans see the Robert Glasper Experiment as jazz’s future, and last year’s hip-hop and R&B-inflected, guest-star-heavy album Black Radio as its Trojan Horse back into the black music mainstream.
Glasper has since won this year’s Grammy for Best R&B album, and certainly gets a younger, blacker crowd than anyone else on the jazz circuit. Black Radio’s title track, though, protests too much about the state of the title's medium for a record which itself verges on the insipid. And pianist Glasper, who led a straight acoustic jazz trio for two Blue Note albums before Double-Booked’s hip-hop half-way house and Black Radio’s full hybrid, harks back to conscious soul-jazz of forty years ago in his music and message. His desire to refresh jazz’s language is admirable, but shouldn’t be overstated.
The crowd at this Shoreditch ex-warehouse anyway ranges from twentysomething hip-hop fans to Simon Callow, as the Experiment start with jazz’s favourite rock band Radiohead’s “Packt Like Sardines In A Crushed Tin Box”. Their most potentially divisive element, Casey Benjamin’s heavily vocodered vocals, are barely present on Black Radio, which is dominated by guest nu-soul singers such as Erykah Badu. But he is crucial to Glasper’s radical desires, the one truly unusual thread in music whose individual strands break little ground. Visually startling as well, with a quiff, slick black leather jacket and beard, when Benjamin switches to sturdy sax soloing on Sade’s “Cherish the Day” he resembles a bebop rock’n’roller.
The Experiment’s busily simmering virtuosity would pass muster as straight jazz, bassist Derek Hodge’s melodic soloing especially. But it’s when the church-raised Glasper’s chiming minor chords let a song slow to a ruminative standstill, or their crowd-sung anthem “Ah Yeah” ends in meditative repetition, that his music becomes more powerful than its parts. Elsewhere it can drift, as ideas are sluggishly dragged into position.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” is remodelled as a robo-ballad, and the most sacred chant in jazz’s prayer-book, John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”, is sacrilegiously vocodered. Glasper’s genre-straddling position is shown best, though, by the way he keeps putting off the pure hip-hop section of a gig whose improvisatory passages heavily mark it as jazz, till the crowd’s laughs turn restless. Playing the London Jazz Festival last year, Glasper tried to provoke that constituency too. At its best, the music tonight moved between his two worlds.