In incorporating elements of hip-hop, soul and R&B, the sound that is the four-piece Robert Glasper Experiment -- Glasper on piano; Casey Benjamin handling sax, keytar and vocoder; Derrick Hodge on electric bass; and the superlative Chris Dave on drums -- could rightly be labelled with the showy-sounding "fusion" tag. Glasper, who's worked with artists such as Kanye West, Common and J Dilla, delivers the idea that music should be seen as an ever-evolving medium. More accurately, the band are actively exploring the connectedness that the overarching oeuvre of contemporary black music -- to pleasing results.
In town for the Toronto Jazz Festival, one suspects that most in attendance at the Enwave Theatre are chiefly familiar with Glasper's recent Black Radio release, a record featuring standout guest spots by R&B artists like Bilal, Erykah Badu, Musiq Soulchild and Lalah Hathaway, as well as rappers Lupe Fiasco and Mos Def. But outside of Bilal, none of the other artists attended, forcing Benjamin to compensate with less familiar vocoder versions of Black Radio tracks, such as "Ah Yeah" and "Cherish the Day." Bilal made an all-too-brief appearance with a free-flowing version of "Levels" from Bilal's 2011 project Airtight's Revenge, along with a cover of David Bowie's "Letter to Hermione" from Black Radio.
Reception to the Robert Glasper Experiment has been growing and rightly so -- watching the band in action is a fascinating undertaking. Heavy on the jam-session mode, what starts as improvisational cacophony reveals itself as organized confusion in action. There's no disputing the instrumental prowess on display -- each member had an impressive, intensive and extended solo session or two -- but those wishing from a bit more adherence to album versions may have left a bit disappointed. And love or hate it, one can't dismiss the sincerity and ingenuity involved in Glasper's vocoder take on Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit." It closed things out, and judging from the crowd response, they were firmly fixed in the former category.