Joe’s Pub, NYC – January 13, 2006
Anyone who attended Robert Glasper’s January 13th set at Joe’s Pub solely on the basis of Canvas, Glasper’s recent recording for Blue Note, was in for a major shock. Canvas is a very well executed, compelling, but quite straightforward jazz album. What Glasper and his crew laid down at Joe’s was a glimpse of the music’s future, pure and simple.
The casually dressed group — with Glasper at the piano, Casey Benjamin on saxophone and vocoder, Lionel Loueke on guitar and effects, Mark Kelly on bass, and Chris Dave behind the drums — looked a bit like Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, ready to pick up homemade instruments and jam in the junkyard. But this was a quintet of monster musicians. In the course of this free-flowing set, the group seemed to have soaked up the entire jazz vocabulary of the past 50 years — everything from Miles Davis to Pharoah Sanders to Woody Shaw to Antonio Carlos Jobim — and forged it in the fires of black popular music into something wholly new and vital.
It was almost impossible to tell where one piece ended and the next began, but Glasper later identified the opener as “From the Foundation.” This started out as the sort of straight-up modern jazz exhibited on Canvas, but it quickly — and unceasingly — morphed. Glasper guided his band, steadily and surely, from neo-fusion into a herky- jerky hip hop groove, placid cool, hard-edged sax honking, and onward into God knows what. As the piece progressed, and drifted into the tunes “Tribal Dance” and “Virgin Forest,” highlight followed highlight. Loueke was particularly impressive, as he adopted and then discarded a smooth Wes Montgomery-style sound, added filter effects that brought him to a strange point somewhere between a banjo and a Minimoog synthesizer, and later fell into an acoustic improvisation set against a series of exotic vocal samples. Benjamin matched this startling inventiveness, crafting complex solos that reached from the bar-walking sax heroes of 1940s R&B up to the popping funk of Maceo Parker and out to the black-consciousness blaring of Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
Black consciousness lay very much at the heart of what Glasper and his band played. As the night progressed, they developed a thunderous energy that, even in the absence of vocals or other overt clues, clearly reached into the depths of the African-American experience and, like a symphonized spiritual, brought it all to the surface. Glasper’s piano spoke eloquently of struggle, pain, joy, hope, and finally, triumph. The band then began afresh, this time reaching all the way back to their African roots as Loueke created a kalimba-like sound for one evocative guitar solo.
All of this was far from what the radio-listening and record-buying public have heard on Canvas, but most of the crowd at Joe’s Pub knew exactly what they were in for. It was a raucous bunch — many of them from Glasper’s hometown of Houston, Texas — that more closely resembled a hip hop audience than that of a typical jazz club. The streetwise sharpness of their clothes and a willingness to engage in yelled banter with Glasper helped to create the proper vibe, and Glasper was loose and jocular to the point of being a smartass as he chatted and gave shout-outs to Houston between tunes.
The band went well beyond their alloted time as they moved into a cover of Wayne Shorter’s “Infant Eyes.” This sounded like a Stevie Wonder record on acid, with Benjamin providing electronically warped vocals via the vocorder. But even if the show began to flag at this point, what came before was nothing less than a revelation. The future is here.