After thinking about the potential conclusions one could draw from my last post ‘Whiplash, Jazz and Creativity’ for the past week or so, I thought that I would set the record straight with this piece on the Robert Glasper Experiment. In that previous post, I potentially aligned the contemporary crisis of jazz (or at least the challenges jazz has faced since the early 1980s) with the rise of jazz education of the type represented in Whiplash’s (Damien Chazelle, 2014) prestigious Shaffer Conservatory. However, I originally intended this argument to reflect either the film’s obvious internal failure to understand jazz or its realism in relation to the contemporary world of jazz education (delete as necessary) and not to suggest that contemporary jazz is in crisis to the extent that it is in Whiplash. While the heroes of the period 1940-1980 are mostly dead and gone – Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter, Keith Jarrett et. al. are clearly still alive and kicking – and there has been few real successors to Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and John Coltrane since – especially of the kind that want to keep the genre evolving, searching for new forms, sounds and flavours – it could be said that jazz has arguably lost its vitality, relevance and influence.
After Wynton Marsalis declared himself successor to Davis, and began to look backwards instead of into the unknown, declaring the new forms of African-American expression as ‘ghetto minstrelsy’, arguing that hip-hop ‘has no merit, rhythmically, musically, lyrically’, it is easy to come to the conclusion that jazz has become an old man’s game, fully rooted in the past. Marsalis’ opinions are of course not representative of jazz as whole, especially as numerous new artists have emerged since he apparently took Davis’ crown, developing the form in their own peculiar ways, albeit without much mainstream or crossover success. Ambrose Akinmusire, Brad Mehldau, Christian Scott, Esperanza Spalding, Esbjörn Svensson, Joshua Redman, Kenny Garrett, Vijay Iyer are names which are currently resounding in contemporary jazz culture, while Bonobo, Flying Lotus, Thundercat, etc. are using elements of jazz in their experimental works. However, it seems to me that the Robert Glasper Experiment are the most important group of the period, achieving mainstream success as jazz musicians (Black Radio won the Grammy for best R&B album in 2013), courting celebrated rappers and neo-soul singers and provoking the reevaluation of contemporary definitions of jazz. By avoiding the recycling of standards and instead interpreting works from artists as varied as Nirvana, Radiohead, J Dilla, Daft Punk, Sade, Bill Withers and Roy Ayers, The Robert Glasper Experiment are searching for a new path within jazz.
Glasper originally earned praise through his piano trio works Canvas (2005) and In My Element (2007), albums which demonstrate his ability and dexterity while also hinting at things to come. Here Glasper solidified his playing style with one foot in the past and one in the present, winning over jazz enthusiasts but never cultivating mainstream appeal. The creation of his four piece band – originally comprising Glasper on piano, Fender Rhodes and keyboard, Casey Benjamin on vocoder and saxophone, Derrick Hodge on electric bass and Chris Dave on drums (now replaced by Mark Collenburg as Dave has left to form Chris Dave and the Drumheadz) – took Glasper and company to new mainstream heights, earning critical success for Double Booked (2009) – an album which represents the jump from piano trio to experimental four piece – and Black Radio (2012). Despite the relative dilution of Black Radio’s audacity in its sequel Black Radio 2, the Robert Glasper Experiment are as important as ever. Their experimentation with electronic and acoustic instruments, effects pedals, turntables and exploration of elements from hip-hop, R&B, neo-soul and alternative rock in combination with those of jazz, follows the line of musicians who have propelled the genre forward: Miles Davis’ experimentation with electric and rock elements in In a Silent Way (1969), Bitches Brew (1969) and Tribute to Jack Johnson (1971), Herbie Hancock’s interest in funk in Headhunters (1973) and Thrust (1974).
As the live performance has always been the place where musicians have explored, improvised and developed the form of jazz, I will share two of the concerts available on Youtube that seem to me to represent what the Experiment are about. I have seen them live three times, at Warwick Arts Centre, Perugia Jazz Festival and the Sage Gateshead, and these two gigs match the phenomenal experience of watching them perform live.
Here is their tribute to the great vibraphone player Roy Ayers – a gig I watch regularly, never tiring of its music – with Stefon Harris on vibes, Pete Rock on turntables and MC and Bilal who join the Experiment on stage.
And here is their recent concert with the Metropole Orkest at North Sea Jazz Festival 2014, a blend of their singular style and classical music.