Beyond hip hop: Glasper stays true to his improvising roots at the Gateshead International Jazz Festival

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RobertGlaspergatesheadMuch has been made of Robert Glasper's R&B and hip hop leanings and of his gradual drift away from jazz and the acoustic setting of the piano trio towards the heavy, electronic grooves of the Robert Glasper Experiment. The texan pianist makes no secret of his love of hip hop producer J Dilla, Black Radio (his first record with the Experiment) scooped 'Best R&B Album' in the 2013 Grammy Awards, and the recently released follow up, Black Radio 2, features the likes of Lupe Fiasco and Jill Scott.

It comes as no surprise then to find that it's standing only in the Sage Gateshead's Hall Two, that the stage is wreathed in smoke and that the music blaring out of the speakers as the audience pours in isn't jazz, but classic hiphop and neo-soul.

Nor is it odd when a cheer goes up and the quartet take their places, dressed in hoodies and sneakers and led by Glasper who wears a t-shirt emblazoned with the word 'Donuts', the name of J Dilla's final release.

CaseyBenjaminGatesheadSo far, so hip hop, and when the band kick into a heavy, bass-drum led groove, that settles beneath the distorted vocals of Casey Benjamin (pictured left) on vocoder and electronics, flawless funk and hiphop is what we get. From there, a wash of keyboard from Glasper takes the group into Daft Punk hit “Get Lucky”, the visceral bass of Burniss Earl Travis slamming in like a freight train on the chorus and shuddering beneath the rimshot and heavy backbeats of Mark Colenburg on drums.

Tracks from Black Radio 2 stand shoulder to shoulder with impossibly tight renditions of earlier originals, while more covers, including 'Lovely Day' and 'Smells Like Teen Spirit', also get the Glasper treatment.

But don't make the mistake of thinking that the Experiment are out of place here or that Glasper has left the jazz behind entirely. Midway through the immaculately paced set, when the pianist finally let rip, his surging lines, sidestepping away from the tonal centre and tumbling in again, were steeped in jazz language. So too were those of Benjamin whose soprano sax feature brought the house down. Scything into his hi-hat, Colenburg spat cross rhythms of astonishing complexity, while Travis showed he had improvising chops to burn in a chordal bass segue.

Embracing minimalism and poise, and distilling virtuosity into the tightest of grooves, the Experiment have taken the best bits of hiphop and fused them with soloistic virtuosity, challenging arrangements and captivating rhythmic variety within the groove. The result is a genre apart, an imaginative blend that is nothing short of brilliant.

– Thomas Rees (@ThomasNRees)
– Photos © Tim Dickeson