As jazz can often seem like both an old man’s game and a history lesson, we could be forgiven for thinking that it has lost its vitality, relevance and influence. Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis has done much to spread this notion in the mainstream press. After he declared himself successor to Davis, he began to look backwards instead of into the unknown. The new forms of African-American expression were said to be ‘ghetto minstrelsy’; hip-hop had ‘no merit, rhythmically, musically, lyrically’; jazz was a genre best kept in its past.
If Marsalis’ opinions were representative of jazz at one point in the genre’s history (if then), they definitely don’t stand up today. Many new artists have emerged since he apparently took Davis’ crown, developing the form in their own peculiar ways, and the musical mainstream has begun to take notice. 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, Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, Thundercat, etc. are using elements of jazz in their experimental works. We have surely entered a new age in jazz history.
The Robert Glasper Experiment are probably the most successful group of the period so far. They have achieved a kind of success that doesn’t usually come to jazz musicians (Black Radio won the Grammy for best R&B album in 2013), courting celebrated rappers and neo-soul singers in the process. 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 formation of his new four piece band, the Experiment, has taken Glasper and company to new mainstream heights. Today, it comprises Glasper on piano, Fender Rhodes and keyboard, Casey Benjamin on vocoder and saxophone, Derrick Hodge on electric bass and new recruit Mark Colenburg on drums.
Their first album Double Booked (2009), with Chris Dave on the drums, represented the jump from piano trio to experimental four piece while the Grammy award-winning Black Radio (2012) continued the musical expansion into hip-hop and R&B terrain. While their follow-up Black Radio 2 (2013) pushed the band further towards the mainstream, and towards R&B and pop stars such as Anthony Hamilton, Faith Evans, Norah Jones and Jill Scott, the lack of jazz on that album was a disappointment for some Glasper die-hards. But perhaps, this was the right thing to do. The Robert Glasper Experiment aren’t trying to imitate the greats of jazz history, they are searching for something new.
Their experimentation with electronic and acoustic instruments, effects pedals, turntables and exploration of elements from hip-hop, R&B, neo-soul and alternative rock 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, here is a concert on Youtube which shows what the Experiment are about. This is their tribute to the great vibraphone player Roy Ayers with Stefon Harris on vibes, Pete Rock on turntables and MC and Bilal who join the Experiment on stage. This gig only exists as a fragment on YouTube since the earlier full length edition was taken down due to sync issues. Still great, though!