Glasper Returns to Trio Roots for Blue Note Festival in NYC


Robert Glasper performs at the Blue Note in New York City on June 22 as part of the venue’s month-long jazz festival.

(Photo: Dino Perrucci)

The late show on the second night of Robert Glasper’s Blue Note residency on June 22 was virtually sold out—and running behind schedule. The keyboardist was audibly holding court in the famed New York City club’s green room, and for a moment, the audience must have wondered if he had decided to play the gig upstairs.

So when the trio descended to deliver its set—part of the month-long Blue Note Jazz Festival that ended June 30—the audience atmosphere was eager and anticipatory. Glasper, winner of the 2016 DownBeat Critics Poll Keyboard category, was joined by bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Damion Reid.

The trio performance balanced various aspects of Glasper’s style, drawing influence from the vocal-heavy nature of his recently released Everything’s Beautiful album (his first for Columbia Records) and from the more electrified sound of the Robert Glasper Experiment.

But the set’s primary focus was on the sound of the acoustic jazz trio, which he was able to weave seamlessly into his eclectic style. Glasper has been laying down so many paths in recent years that they are no longer capable of completely separate existences.

Still, the all-encompassing influence of Miles Davis has come to a head in Glasper’s playing of late. The keyboardist co-credited the departed master on Everything’s Beautiful, and also worked on the soundtrack to the recent Miles Ahead movie, featuring Don Cheadle as the late trumpet genius.

But it was another musical pioneer who served as the inspiration for Glasper’s first song. Prince’s “Sign O’ The Times” was given a stuttering beat by drummer Reid, Glasper providing a complementary agitation in his own reading of the theme. The pianist specializes in a tense kind of cocktail-easy sound, flamboyant and decorative, but with a certain amount of edge, rarely wandering toward blandness.

For “Sign”, Glasper steadily built up the density and intensity, the melody becoming less recognizable the more it elaborated on its core bassline riff, developing a repetitive vamp and skating far away from the original. It sounded strange to have one of Prince’s most wordy vocal outings delivered as an instrumental.

Glasper’s set later found him delivering rapid-fire runs with ultra-confidence, seeming so laid back that his demeanor appeared almost too casual. Reid set his traps scampering, and a Philip Glass minimalism emerged before a recording of Harry Belafonte’s voice intoned the beginning of “Got Over.”

Radiohead’s “Packt Like Sardines In A Crushed Tin Box” led into Kendrick Lamar’s “How Much A Dollar Cost,” with Glasper then enthusing about his upcoming co-production with Herbie Hancock. He proceeded to play the latter’s 1969 number “Tell Me A Bedtime Story,” compacting his keyboard phrases into a hard-lounge sound. The tune was topped by a savagely complex drum solo.

Glasper seems to relish alternating such sharp musical exchanges with a more relaxed atmosphere, bringing up bursts of disciplined dexterity within a surrounding zone of light-hearted, playfulness. Consequently, the set didn’t follow an expected curve of excitement, but instead wound down without any real fireworks, finishing on a note of serenity.

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