The Robert Glasper Experiment proved less experimental than its a jazz/hip-hop mashup lineage indicated in a simply sensational concert on Sunday at The Egg’s (sinfully underpopulated) Swyer Theatre on Sunday.
“Black Radio,” Glasper’s first album credited to the Experiment, features a who’s who of hip-hop stars, but at The Egg’s Swyer Theatre on Sunday, the keyboardist and his Experiment played without guests — also without qualms or fear despite the small crowd. Too hip-hop for jazz heads? Too jazz for hip-hoppers? Maybe that kept people away, and that was a big shame since the music was so inviting.
“I can play R&B, hip-hop, soul — while at the same time keeping the jazz spine,” Glasper told Gazette music writer Brian McElhiney. Maybe Glasper should have named soul first: They bookended their seamless 100-minute set with white-band rock songs — Radiohead’s “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushed Tin Box” to start and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to close. In between, they brilliantly evoked soul music since Steve Wonder’s genius years of keyboard powered jazzy pop and beautifully evoked such highlights as P.M. Dawn, in achieving real grandeur, and Zapp, in the creative use of vocoder to color and modify vocals.
Glasper and multi-instrumentalist Casey Benjamin set up staccato keyboard jitters that started the show on a nervous note, but bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Mark Collenburg formed a groove that everybody fell into and they flowed together through solos and chord changes into “Cherish the Day” from “Black Radio.” Hodge supplied ingenious transitions between “Packt” and “Cherish,” and Benjamin swapped his strap-on keyboard — which had emitted a menagerie of electro-whirs, whizzes and whatnot in “Packt” — for alto sax through a harmonizer. Glasper himself starred in “Ah, Yeah,” a simple, two-chord vamp he enriched with lyrical piano between equally stunning solos by Collenburg and Benjamin. Glasper’s playing emulated Stevie Wonder when he vamped behind others and Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea or Joe Zawinul — 1970s giants all — when he soloed.
Glasper’s name is on the band, but it is a stunning ensemble of tremendous individual skill and breathtaking ensemble cohesion and power. Benjamin played and sang up front, but each player made the most of both solo spots and the need to accompany each other. Collenburg did things I’ve never seen a drummer do before: bristling polyrhythms, sensitive undercurrents, volcanic explosions and extraordinary command of tones. And Hodge knew just what to do in setting down the beat with him; only a deeply musical player of unerring taste could keep the groove uncluttered.
When “Smells Like Teen Spirit” formed from a fatback beat — Glasper helping to throw everyone off the track by synthesizing a marimba — the hipsters in the crowd jumped up in delight. But it was jazz, all the way, even through the vintage soul encore “I Couldn’t Help It.”
In a season full of fine jazz, this may have been the unassailable summit, the peak no one else will touch.