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Joe Lovano

Robert Glasper

Williamstown Jazz Festival
'62 Center For The Performing Arts - Williams College
Williamstwon, MA
April 12, 2008

By J Hunter

The day had started well for the Robert Glasper Trio: They'd left Brooklyn that afternoon with new drummer Chris Dave at the wheel, headed for the Williamstown Jazz Festival, and everything was fine. Glasper took a nap, woke up long enough to see Dave getting directions at a gas station… and the next time Glasper woke up, the car was passing a sign that said "WELCOME TO BOSTON." If you don't have a map available (and, apparently, Dave didn't have one, either), let me assure you that Boston and Williamstown are not close to each other.
This was at 7:30pm; the fact that Glasper got to Williamstown by 9:50pm means Dave drove very fast and the trio was very lucky the Massachusetts State Police had something else to do that night. Unfortunately, by the time Glasper and his partners were ready to play, there was one teensy little problem they had to face: The Joe Lovano Quartet – the night's headliners – had graciously agreed to play the first set… and they had blown the roof off the place!
You never know what you're going to get with Lovano: In the last year, he'd given Third Stream and "Birth of the Cool" his own twist, and he'd done an extensive exercise in rubato with longtime co-conspirators Bill Frisell and Paul Motian. No large units or weird concepts this time – just a simple quartet. But three members of that quartet had backed up jazz legend Dewey Redman, who died of liver failure in 2006. Matt Wilson, Frank Kimbrough, and John Menegon joined Lovano in a tribute to Redman, and the 75-minute set left us utterly breathless.
Lovano walked onstage playing in the clear, his tenor on a wireless mic. Musical ideas flew out of his bell as the band folded Lovano's free association into the hot bopping groove of "Fort Worth." There was no sense of choruses as Lovano played – just one long stream of consciousness that had him completely lost in the joy of the moment. Kimbrough matched his intensity perfectly, alternating between chords and runs on his piano, while Wilson was a perpetual motion machine behind the drum kit and Menegon – a faculty member at Williams when he's not playing bass for Fathead Newman – laid down reverberating foundation just like Mama used to make… if your mama was Ron Carter's sister.
The Lovano Quartet didn't give us (or themselves) much recovery time after "Fort Worth", launching into the barely-controlled Redman composition "Dewey's Tune." Still, for a tribute concert, the quartet had no problem playing their own material – mainly because pieces like Menegon's mournful "Texas" or Kimbrough's frenetic "Quickening" was written with Dewey in mind, or approached the same way he might do it. We're talking volcanic bebop with a sizzling side of anarchy, performed by four exemplary artists who played music that was both powerful and personal. Redman touched all their lives, and this was the night they gave back – and gave us a tremendous experience.
We return now to the Glasper Trio, who had a big mountain to climb. Glasper doesn't just think outside the jazz box – he lives outside that box, striving to combine hip-hop methods with the standard piano-trio matrix. That involves setting up what amounts to manual tape loops, both by Glasper and by the drummer; there's music in there, and some of it is achingly beautiful, but finding it can be a lot of work. It didn't help that, on this night, there was no sign of the group archetype I witnessed when Glasper played Skidmore two years ago; Dave and bassist Alan Hampton's primary purpose seemed to be set up the groove and let Glasper run with it any way he wanted.
Glasper's technique is phenomenal, and you see glimpses of vast musical knowledge inside his performance. But none of that offset the fact that he seemed to disappear inside his own loops as the set went on. As a result, Glasper's music went from "self-possessed" to "self-absorbed" in a big hurry. Making matters worse, his new support players simply paled in comparison to what had come before: Where Wilson was a master of drama and nuance, Dave's drum sound alternated between Machine Gun and Morse Code; Hampton seemed to be a bystander watching Glasper and Dave trade rapid-fire fusillades, and his few solos were uninspired and uninteresting.
It sounds like cocked-up Zen, but it's true: Never let your headliner open for you. The Robert Glasper Trio was playing under difficult circumstances, but even if they weren't, they simply weren't ready to switch places on the bill with the Joe Lovano Quartet – even if Dave had remembered to use Mapquest before leaving Brooklyn.
J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz Programming) and Q104 WQBK/Albany. He is a frequent contributor to the web site All About Jazz and to the monthly music magazine State of Mind. He currently resides in Clifton Park.