Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Robert Glasper at The Horseshoe

The venue is the dim-lit, low-ceilinged back space of a tavern on Toronto's Queen West. Not what I expected for a rising star bringing his act - The Robert Glasper Experiment - to Toronto's annual Jazz Fest. And passing through the Horseshoe's front room, an un-renovated space with a long, well worn bar, its bank of stools lightly populated by indifferent regulars, I can't help but think it an unfitting spot for the latest Grammy winner for best R&B album. It gets even odder as pairs and groups of gray hairs like me file in, almost an hour to showtime, sipping beers while talking NBA playoffs and riffing on their latest overnight business flight anecdotes.

But soon enough, the atmosphere begins to thicken and deepen, as streams of young hipsters flow in, crowding around the stage, greeting each other with bubbling, expectant energy. There are maybe 4-500 bodies in the room by the time the quartet appears on stage, and they are greeted with an ovation that must sweep aside any thoughts about not being in the right place, if the players have any of those to begin with. But, seeming almost to respond to my thoughts, a relaxed and joking Glasper refers to a previous time in Toronto when they were ejected from the stage - for some reason I don't catch. "Now that I got a Grammy, WE DON'T TAKE THAT SHIT!", Glasper declares, taking on a comic-defiant pose.

And then he gets down to business.

Business is a set of dense, throbbing fusion that leaves no bit of sonic space unfilled. Glasper's fusion is a melange of HipHop, NeoSoul and Jazz. In a Downbeat interview, Glasper recently said that he's bored with Jazz and that it needs an ass slap, and he's set out to do the slapping. To my ear, the result is right in line with what progressive, experimental jazz is all about. And this group is dubbed "The Experiment" for a reason.

This isn't your linear, melody dominated music. It feels to me that what lines of melody stand out are a little like the tiny human figures that landscape painters sometimes include in a work, something to give scale to the dominating background, even to suggest or induce a degree of reverence. Glasper's music is much more about atmosphere, tone and foundation; it's about the world that melody is sketched in. We feel Derrick Hodge's electric bass lines throbbing up and down our backbones, and Glasper's sometimes heavy, sometimes dancing keyboard chords rumbling in our core. Chris Dave, the drummer is into interlacing his precision work with bursts and stabs of energy. Casey Benjamin, who leads with passages of synthesized vocals along with his sax and keyboard work, really is a front man, in the sense that his work is not the essential piece, but one of four, balanced and strong voices.

I love the dense flow of sound the band produces. Bass and drum are sometimes funky, and always earthy and tight, and Glasper and Benjamin range freely through Ornette Coleman like harmelodics and always find their way back to the driving beat, anchoring them to their excited audience.

Ponczka and I are standing on stools against a wall, able to see over bouncing heads to the stage. She's bouncing too, just like she's done at Sting and Black Keys concerts. That surprises me a little, because when I play this stuff on the stereo at home, she'll react to the discordance after awhile, and ask me to turn it down. But it's no real surprise. It's not discordant when you're bathing in it, feeling it instead of just hearing it, letting the music sculpt its own territory instead of listening to it out of a box.

Glasper wants out of the box, his music says. All through his playing is actual play, as he throws in quirky riffs and plunky splatters of notes, and chordal grooves, one after another. It's fun, new music. It rocks, it soars off on tangents, fills you up and wrings you out, then drops you down on the front porch. A sweet and serious ass slap that doesn't hurt a bit.


  1. Great writing...I so look forward to reading your work...Set myself up with a coffee, so I can relax, sip & enjoy...Thank you...Soon you will be able to slurp this whole blog into Blurb & have a book!