REVIEW: Robert Glasper Experiment at KOKO (2016 EFG LJF)

Robert Glasper in 2012. Photo credit : Roger Thomas

Robert Glasper Experiment
(KOKO, 14th November 2016. First night of two. EFG London Jazz Festival. Review by AJ Dehany)

The first of charismatic US pianist and crossover mastermind Robert Glasper’s two nights at Koko during the London Jazz Festival had the feel of a club night and the sexy swing of a late night DJ set. The ‘electric’ Robert Glasper Experiment played a comprehensive two and a half hour set. The band seamlessly segued in breathtaking solos from the five-piece electronic band, sneaking in all their iconic tunes from Ah Yeah to Day To Day, with eclectic covers including a snatch of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit and Swedish electropop outfit Little Dragon’s Twice - a highlight enlivened by British singer Lianne La Havas’s surprise appearance. In the Experiment’s reading of J-Dilla’s Fall In Love (which has also been covered by jazz/hip hop crossover group Badbadnotgood), singer and saxophonist Casey Benjamin sings “Don't sell yourself/ To fall in love”. It glosses like a comment on how to create broad appeal without compromising.

Recently Glasper has seen a “return to jazz” with an album of covers with the reprised trio of his early albums for Blue Note, and his work on the soundtrack to Don Cheadle’s film Miles Ahead. The new Robert Glasper Experiment album ArtScience has more jazz than on the straighter RnB joints of 2012’s Grammy award-winning breakthrough album Black Radio. On the album and especially live, the sonic and textural crossovers between Glasper’s influences from RnB, gospel, jazz, dance, and rock, are honed. The ensemble obeys the music rather than their own virtuosity but the mainstay of the Experiment is Glasper himself.

The urgency and liveliness of his playing shone as he allowed himself more scope to show it, the whole set picking up after some rather tasteful and at times formulaic RnB in the earlier portions. His piano solo half an hour in insistently stabbed at jagged pedal tones and a wiggy harmony before resolving into the expansive chords of a Maiden Voyage drenched in Radiohead’s Everything In Its Right Place. Casey Benjamin bookended the evening with two ferocious extended saxophone solos, but he spent most of the gig singing through a vocoder, a sound ubiquitous in contemporary pop music that could make a curmudgeon of anyone. It’s a huge timbral sticking point, but the band itself is impressive. Bassist Burniss Travis played a beautiful textural bass solo. Drummer Mark Colenburg has funk, drive and chops. Guitarist Mike Severson, Glasper told us in a rambling segment, was once in a student band called Sheets of Sound, which tells us all we need to know about the serious commitment to jazz at the heart of the Experiment.

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