[live review] Robert Glasper Experiment at the Regattabar

PHOTO: Michael Schreiber

If you want to know how the Robert Glasper Experiment packed the Regattabar for two shows on a Tuesday night, the answer lies somewhere between Kurt Cobain and J Dilla. Pianist Glasper is riding on the heels of the release of the new Black Radio (Blue Note). He got a full page in the Sunday New York Times Arts & Leisure section and a spot on Letterman last week, but that doesn’t come close to explaining the young, heterogeneous audience that filled the club.

Glasper, 33, began at venerable jazz imprint Blue Note leading an acoustic trio, but — as with a lot of jazz musicians his age — there was plenty of hip-hop in the mix, and he’s probably the first jazz musician to have covered Dilla. He assayed the Experiment on the second half of his last album, Double Booked (2009), but Black Radio is the full deal: a quiet-storm mix of covers and originals, with wall-to-wall guest singers, from Erykah Badu and Lalah Hathaway to Mos Def and Lupe Fiasco (the mix earned Black Radio a debut at #15 on the Billboard Top 200 albums chart).

But the Regattabar show was just the core Experiment: Glasper on acoustic piano and electric keys, Casey Benjamin on vocoder (!), synths, and saxophones, Derrick Hodge on electric bass, and Mark Colenburg on drums (in for Chris Dave from the album). The show started with Benjamin mewling vocoder falsettos along with his keytar-style synth, but then Colenburg joined him with sick stutter-step funk cross rhythms on his closed hi-hat (TAKitah TAKitah TAKitah TAKtah), followed by bass and keyboard, and somewhere along the lines things got really sick – one of the few shit-storms of electric rhythms I’ve heard come near the Miles Davis bands of the early ’70s. (Another was Meshell Ndegeocello — also featured on Black Radio — with her Spirit Music Jamia band at the Paradise some years back.)

There was a strong root of funk grounding everything, but on top of that, the syncopations and cross-rhythms were impossible to follow. Colenburg in particular wound a tense weave — part taffy pull, part AK-47. And yes, that is a mixed metaphor – a rough approximation of Colenburg’s — and the band’s — ability to fracture and reassemble beats. Hodge often worked slow patterns against Colenburg, laying out for measures at a time, while Glasper unfurled a relaxed carpet of chords. For the first half of the set, however, Colenburg was the engine, regularly eliciting screams — from the band as well as the audience — with his subversive displacement of the beat.

And that’s the thing — how do you keep time by breaking it, making it all the stronger?

Anyway, they were doing it. Even when Benjamin -- punked out in black leather jacket and magenta-striped pompadour -- took a bravura alto solo, spellbinding as he was, it was Colenburg who made him sound even better.

There were quiet moments. A beautiful solo piano interlude from Glasper. And by the end, I had even grown fond of Benjamin’s vocoder falsetto. When he snuck into “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and the lyrics “Here we are now/entertain us/I feel stupid and contagious” emerged — well, they haven’t sounded that, yes, subversive since Kurt cacked himself. Meanwhile, the stutter-taffy beat had started again, and Hodge found a nasty pattern I can only describe as “Hall of the Mountain King” funk.

They were over their set time at the hotel-based club, and when people started shouting “Dilla!” for an encore, Glasper assented, “Only if we play really quietly.” So they did “Fall in Love,” and Benjamin’s falsetto never sounded more sweet.

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