Jazz in 2012 is at a major breaking point. An artistic insurrection against the restrictive nature of the genre’s traditions is a loudening crescendo. Brooklyn-by-way-of-Houston pianist Robert Glasper is a commander in this revolt, however, he’s embraced one of those very traditions, serving, ironically as the cornerstone of both jazz’s dissolution and ultimate preservation: the super group. Miles had his second quintet, Herbie had the Head Hunters, and Chick had Return to Forever. Tuesday, February 28, 2012, saw the official arrival of the next great super group, the Robert Glasper Experiment (RCDC). The attendees of their performance at New York’s Highline Ballroom that evening bore witness to the band’s live unveiling of Black Radio, their star-studded debut LP, released earlier that day. Glasper, along with saxophonist/flautist/vocalist Casey Benjamin, bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Mark Colenburg (filling in for RCDC skins-man, Chris “Daddy” Dave) made a live manifestation that boundaries had no place among them.
To say that Glasper’s music is heavily influenced by hip-hop is as obvious as it is misleading. Just by observing the eclectic Highline crowd – dark-skinned sisters with shaved heads or naturals, light-skinned brothers with sweater vests and neck-ties, and white boys with flannels and earrings – offered definitive clarity that RCDC’s music served only one demographic: open minded youth. With the first ivory sprinkles from Glasper, Benjamin, with a keytar around his neck, opened his vocoder blessed mouth to sing the mantra to end all mantras: “A Love Supreme, A Love Supreme…” RCDC’s futuristic take on John Coltrane’s classic composition was nothing short of sublime, enriching the previously mentioned duality of progression/preservation.
As they made their way through Black Radio album cuts “Why Do We Try” and “The Consequence of Jealousy,” Benjamin appeared as an unlikely, yet overtly satisfying frontman, proving to be an Anti-T-Pain as he emoted rich vulnerability through the vocoder. Coupled the sinuous fusion of Hodge’s liquid bass and Colenburg’s razor thin snare snaps, some of the concert goers were nearly reduced to tears as they held their heads while swaying from side to side.
Speaking of Colenburg, a number of crowd members where exclaiming, “where’s Chris,” before a single note was played. Unfazed, Colenburg, a New School classmate of Glasper and Benjamin’s, won them over within mere seconds, clearing their minds, at least for one night, of RCDC’s regular, and incomparable drummer. He fell right in with Glasper’s edgy arrangement sensibilities which were in overdrive that evening. The stage was engulfed with mist and smoke all night, but perhaps it was the essence of the channeled spirit of one James “J Dilla” Yancey, whose presence was felt all through Colenburg’s beats and Glasper piercing chords.
By the fourth song, the audience was ripe for the evening’s first special guest. Over an hour prior, Roots drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson got them all revved up with a DJ set of his singular brand of instrumental funk, so everybody was expecting more superstar turnouts. Glasper obliged them, bringing out Grammy winning chanteuse Chrisette Michele, who in a striking black lace dress, was the epitome of graceful sexiness. She turned up that sensual energy by blessing songs “Afro Blue” and “Ah Yeah” with her signature scats and quivers. Not one man in the Highline could deny that their neck hairs were turned 90 degrees by Michele’s performance and presence.
Up next was Bilal. The Philly bred singer, donning a bucket hat and sunglasses, lent his unmistakable tone to “Letter to Hermione,” a David Bowie cover, matched sincerely with Benjamin’s hypnotic flute melody; but the real magic was in his expanding falsetto, transforming Colenburg’s marching rhythm into a lulling rock. But if that soothed the standing room only audience, they were shaken alert when Yasin Bey, the MC formerly known as Mos Def, entered with his red Walter Winchell style microphone. Hodge’s brooding bass intro the album title track, “Black Radio,” prompted the crowd to rock their arms back and forth as Bey flowed with military command, followed by a romping solo from Glaspser.
When Lalah Hathaway emerged from backstage, the audience went into a frenzy, as if Michele, Bilal and Bey’s performances weren’t legendary enough! Together, she and RCDC turned Sade’s haunting, enigmatic ode to submission “Cherish the Day” into a tour-de-force of adventurous abandon, highlighted by Benjamin’s alto sax solo, played through a harmonizer pedal. Hathaway was at a artistic zenith, caressing the microphone with customarily husky alto as well as a dynamic high whisper.
The concert was full of memorable moments, but none was more prophetic than the band’s run through Nirvana rock standard, “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Highlighted by Benjamin’s cyborg vocals and Colenburg’s monstrous staccato bashing, “Teen Spirit” throbbed, prodded and poked with an ominous floatation that’s just as frightening as it is captivating.
RCDC’s Highline performance was an exhibition in ambition with an undertone of traditionalism. When Bitches Brew dropped, it caught folks off guard. When Head Hunters came out, it surprised everyone. The connection? Both projects were undeniable. Black Radio is an undeniable recording, and that Tuesday night in New York will forever live in folklore as the night jazz died and was resurrected within 150 minutes.
Words by Matthew Allen
A Love Supreme
Why Do We Try
Consequence of Jealously
Afro Blue (featuring Chrisette Michele)
Letter To Hermione (featuring Bilal)
Black Radio (featuring Yasin Bey)
Cherish The Day (featuring Lalah Hathaway)
Ah Yeah (featuring Chrisette Michele)
Smells Like Teen Spirit (featuring Lalah Hathaway & Bilal)
All Matter (featuring Bila)
Medley: Reminisce/Fall-N-Love/A Love Supreme (reprise)/Umi Says (featuring Bilal & Yasin Bey)