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Robert Glasper

Bernhard Theatre - Skidmore College
Saratoga Springs, NY
June 28, 2006

by J Hunter

If there's one thing that defines jazz, it's the music's ability to think outside the box - that is, to take an established matrix and present it in completely different terms. That said, it's amazing how many jazz fans view new musical ideas with the same horror a Warner Brothers cartoon elephant displays when confronted by a field mouse. For example, you mention the legendary record label Blue Note to your average jazz fan, and images readily spring to his or her mind: A certain look to the albums and the musicians, a certain sound to the music they play. The Robert Glasper Trio confounds that imagery, and while I think it's a good thing, some of the standing-room-only crowd at the Bernhard Theatre didn't agree.

One of the greatest things about Blue Note is its continuing support of the Skidmore Jazz Institute's mission to provide its students with the best education, as well as the deepest immersion in the genre. Consequently, opening night of the Institute's free concert series is Blue Note Night, complete with label CEO Bruce Lundvall sitting in the top row. Blue Note artists have been opening the series for years now; Stefon Harris' debut with the label happened at Skidmore over ten years ago. But while Harris easily fit the mold back then (Sharp suits with sharper lapels, musical styles found throughout the company catalog), Glasper and his band mates were round pegs to complex for the square hole.

A latecomer might have looked at Glasper's eyebrow post and dreadlocks - piled high and pony-tailed - and decided the Institute's student concert series had relocated from Filene Recital Hall. The Houston native (who was deadpan-funny whenever he got on the mic) showed he was anything but a neophyte by opening with a solo deconstruction of Sam Rivers' “Beatrice”. The introspective chords Glasper coaxed out of the grand piano took new meaning when drummer Damion Reed and bassist Vincente Archer joined in, providing a driving foundation that both belied and augmented the muted colors Glasper chose.

“Beatrice” gave way to “Of Dreams To Come” (a Glasper original yet to be recorded), which gave way to the title track from his latest disc, Canvas. Originals made up the lion's share of the set, though references abounded from a variety of artists - from Herbie Hancock to Radiohead (the rock band jazz musicians have come to know and cover), from Seal to (in Glasper's words) “the late, great Kenny Kirkland.”

Throughout the evening, Glasper's playing maintained an aching beauty that pulsed with intensity while avoiding any conventional definition of “loud.” The dynamite that fueled all explosions came from Reed, whose relentless attack brought ever-different levels of urgency to Glasper's meditations. (Most of Archer's contributions were lost in an atrocious mix that left him all but inaudible.)

It became like looking at fractal paintings, turning your head this way and that until you found just the right angle. As the song says, “When you get it, you got something,” and you're usually applauding when the light bulb lights. Not everyone got the picture on this night, though, as there were two group walkouts - one at the one-hour point, and one at the end of the regular set; the latter exodus was so populous, the theatre staff brought up the house lights just as Glasper came out for an encore. He would have gone back offstage if the remaining crowd - all of whom were on their feet - hadn't cheered louder, urging Glasper to give them one more tune.

Yes, there were weather concerns on this night: I passed at least one creek that was seriously flooded, with more rain on the way. It couldn't have been the band's performance, which was both technically brilliant and spiritually committed. All that's left to “blame” is the structure of the music itself, which echoes the recent work of E.S.T. and the Tord Gustavson Trio. (Well, okay, Tord Gustavson on Red Bull.) It was beautiful, it was evocative, but it wasn't “Blue Note”, and some people just couldn't get past that.

More is the pity. Considering their last excursion outside the box was to sign Norah Jones, cultivating a genuine artist like Glasper is the kind of thing Blue Note used to do back in the day, before money changed everything. That's the Blue Note I want to remember, and it's the Blue Note I'd like to hear more from.

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), Q104 WQBK/Albany, and WSSV/Saratoga. He has also written music and theatre reviews for the Glens Falls Chronicle. He currently resides in Clifton Park.