Published Jun 29, 2015The last time I caught up with Robert Glasper at the Montreal Jazz Festival was five years ago. So much has changed for him since then. Most notably, he's not coming up anymore: he's a Grammy-winning, Kendrick-collaborating piano star on the forefront of what is shaping up to be a whole new generation of African American jazz stars from Kamasi Washington to Thundercat.
Swagger was never in short supply with Glasper, but now he commands a show from the opening "wassup" with joviality and deserved self-satisfaction. I'm still not sure whether he plans his set list — there were three or four casual asides of "What are we gonna play next?" to his trio, which I've witnessed in previous concerts — but from the drop, the trio's sound backed up the swagger.
Starting with a version of Prince's "Sign o' The Times" that didn't make his recent album, Covered, drummer Damion Reid laid down double-time funk patterns that were articulated clearly enough to be breakbeats but not so rock solid that he couldn't gradually turn the beat around and introduce some freeform moments. His light touch was aided by cranking up the mics on his kit — even his tom work with brushes sounded impossibly heavy. Bassist Vicente Archer was the very definition of the strong silent type on bass — sometimes the sheer warmth and resonance of Reid's kit overpowered his articulation, but Archer played along, creating a massive bass cushion.
Always at the centre of attention was Glasper, who dug into his dusky pop chords, even quoting Bruce Hornsby and Cyndi Lauper at times, revealing his true colours as someone who really, really likes pop music. On the whole, Glasper's style seems to me more like Hornsby than Hancock, with a prettiness that would not have been taken seriously 50 years ago, but together with such a killer rhythm section, it was futile to find fault.
Things were moving along quite nicely until Glasper took a long and indulgent solo, which sounded like he was reaching for some Cecil Taylor mostly to show that dissonance was in his bag of tricks. For nearly 15 minutes, he tried to coax his bandmates into joining him on this journey, throwing out song quotes that they weren't having any of. It was hard to tell if this was a shtick or whether they were genuinely not interested in his clowning and wanted to get down to some serious playing. The packed house, however, loved it.
The band did eventually get down to business, which sounded awesome and the best I've ever heard from Glasper, whose technique is better than ever. There were several voiceovers by the likes of Harry Belafonte utilized over the songs, which provided extra impact. Just when things were really moving along again, local rapper Illa J stepped out for a guest spot. The band set up a devastating groove over which J vocalized, rapping half-heartedly but eventually more forcefully. It got decent audience response, but the segment was overlong, as the band went into an autopilot groove.
The concert built to a fitting climax and medley-esque encore (including a snatch of "Smells Like Teen Spirit") that provoked two standing ovations. Although it's hard to argue with a standing O, just once I'd like to see Glasper come out with a properly put together set list and witness the band play their asses off for 90 minutes. They've got the talent and the tunes to blow people away but they just need more focus on delivery.