Published Jul 05, 2010Over the past 20 years, a couple generations of jazzmen have taken up the Jazzmatazz concept of incorporating jazz and hip-hop. The challenge is to maintain the precise restraint and hypnotic power of hip-hop while flexing instrumental, improvisatory chops. Most live musicians succumb to the latter, which destroys the former. Robert Glasper and his band are among the best at achieving balance and moving forward from there.
The quartet started off with Herbie Hancock's "I Have a Dream," in which both Glasper on piano and Chris Dave on drums took a similar approach. Both would deconstruct phrases as though they were sampling themselves live, then go into double or half time, or improvise within seemingly random but always metric interjections. Dave was super funky, taking off from James Brown drummer Clyde Stubblefield's New Orleans-influenced snare fantasies and constantly mixing up the patterns by folding them in upon each other.
Saxophonist Casey Anderson was equipped with a harmonizer, which gave more latitude to his alto and soprano work; at times, he sounded like an electronic tenor. His first use of the effect sounded like a jet taking off, effectively cranking up the intensity of the band and provoked great applause from the full house. Throughout, the music drew deeply from post-'60s avant-soul jazz – Hancock loomed large throughout, and Anderson owed a large debt to Wayne Shorter.
The set was more than two-thirds finished when vocalist Bilal finally came out for his guest spot. Looking jittery with hands in his pockets and his face obscured by sunglasses, the man whose future funk album comes out in September surprised the crowd by taking on Duke Ellington's immortal "In a Sentimental Mood." Dude has strange technique for a jazz standard, which made this chestnut all the more interesting. Bilal's voice is almost whiny, but his pitch was perfect, with phrasing that pushed and pulled at the limits of melodic interpretation. His penchant for singing close to the mic sounded like the distorted, Riot-era Sly Stone, but he would then draw back to sounded far away and breathy.
When Bilal came back for the band's Grammy-nominated song "All Matter," he sounded more confident with this self-penned tune, and the band played with more straight-ahead gusto than they had laid down previously. Even though this was the second of two nights from the band, the hall was full to bursting and the audience was rapturous in its reception.