If you are a fan of rap, jazz, hip-hop, funk, soul and/or good music, keep reading. Robert Glasper might be your new best friend and favorite musician out there. He is a high quality liberal arts education to music with the knowledge of a PhD.
I saw Glasper for the first time at Royce Hall at UCLA, accompanied by the Austin Peralta Trio, Taylor McFerrin and the Jose James Band. Peralta’s trio kicked off the night, with Peralta on piano, Tim Lefebvre on bass and Gene Coye on drums. His music is deeply rooted in traditional jazz but pushes the tempo higher than normal. The results are relaxing compositions with a healthy bit of urgency. Peralta nodded along with the music as Coye delivered a syncopated yet simplistic backbone. The Trio finished their half-hour set with a collaboration between Peralta and Flying Lotus (who wasn’t in attendance), setting a solid bar for the night. (Before going to press, Peralta unexpectedly passed away at the age of 22, from unknown causes. He was a wonderful musician.)
But Taylor McFerrin, who showed an immense amount of skill during his freestyle sessions, would soon top that bar. He bluntly stated that nothing he was about to play was rehearsed and he happily dove in, starting from ground zero. For some, this is dangerous territory, but for McFerrin (and the audience), it was a blessing. He started with some basic lyrics then added multiple levels of beatboxing, all emanating from his mouth simultaneously. Next came an array of synths, then piano. The tempo of his compositions was constantly evolving, like someone constantly adjusting the throttle. As the track came together, McFerrin’s talent was palpable.
The set continued with a remix of “Thinkin’ About Your Body,” an ode to Bobby McFerrin, his father. The younger McFerrin honored his father’s track lyrically but added a beatboxing underbelly. He transitioned to “A Billie” halfway through the track, then back, garnering Ohhhhhs and Ahhhhhs from the youth in attendence. McFerrin showed an immense amount of depth throughout his set, pushing the constraints of a one-man orchestra.
The third act this night was the jazz and soul singer Josè James, accompanied by his band. He opened with “It’s All Over Your Body,” off his upcoming EP No Beginning No End. The track exhibits the class and flow of traditional jazz and soul but adopts elements of restrained funk throughout the accents. During his set, James brought back McFerrin to beatbox on a track, meshing the speed and technicality of McFerrin with the soul and restraint of James. The set was refreshing after two upbeat and more technical ones before.
But the Experiment would soon shatter any bar or expectations. Glasper and the Experiment took the stage to a rousing applause. But no one knew what was coming.
Glasper took his time, chatting up the crowd, and introducing his fellow musicians. But halfway through introducing the band, which consist of Glasper on piano, Derrick Hodge on bass, Casey Benjamin on vocoter and saxophone and Mark Colenburg on drums, Glasper, in a calm annoyance, said “I need some stage assistance—my shit’s all fucked up,” which received a round of laughter. A stagehand made his way to Glasper, who was sure to give directions over the mic, bringing the humiliation to another level.
While the crew was trying to fix his piano, an audience member yelled out “Derrick Hodge on the bass.” Playing along, Glasper responded, “Derrick Hodge, I don’t know who that is.” Laughter again. Finally, the stagehand fixed the issue and Glasper hit a note and said, “Oh yeah. That feels good. There we go.” He continued, “Give it up for my man. I don’t know your name… but you probably fucked it up in the first place.” Laughter again. Glasper went back to introducing the band, but continued to play along, forgetting whom Hodge was. “What’s your name, son?” Silence. “Seriously I forgot.” Twenty seconds later, Glasper snapped back into it and said, “Oh. Derrick Hodge. Derrick Hodge on the bass.”
Glasper talked for a bit more, about their recent appearance at the iTunes Festival, as well as the Experiment’s Black Radio, the reason most were in attendance this night. Someone yelled out “J Dilla,” recognizing Glasper was repping him on his shirt, to which Glasper responded, “Of course.” Glasper’s musings set the tone for a night to be filled with comedy, exploration and some incredible fucking music.
The set opened with an immensely deeper and syncopated take on Radiohead’s “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushed Tin Box.” Colenburg dug in right out of the gate and provided the intricate backbone of the track, with a more vibrant grove than the original. Glasper came in next with an array of percussive and melodic accents, complimenting Colenburg. As Glasper plays, he stares intently at his fellow musicians, as what seems like enjoyments creeps through his deep focus. Then came Hodge, lending the recognizable riff from the original. Colenburg picked up into a full beat, followed by Benjamin coming in with the vocoter. For those unfamiliar with the instrument, it’s a synth system used to reproduce or alter human speech. Benjamin uses the vocoter in conjunction with a keytar (keyboard combined with a guitar), which adds effects. The result is a beautiful but restrained melodic sound, especially when mixed with jazz. With everything meshing perfectly, the track is classic Glasper, rooted in jazz but taking on everything in between, and constantly evolving.
The track continued to build, as Benjamin took more control, and pushed the song with the help of the vocoter. He brought in undertones of Radiohead’s “All I Need” to drive the song further. After the build, the band pulled itself back in, tapering off, leaving only Glasper and some textured synth, which slowly disappeared, as Hodges moved into a diverse and technical solo.
The Experiment is a perfect case of classically trained musicians pushing the boundaries. Glasper learned piano in church, taking inspiration from his mother, who was a professional jazz singer. Hodge learned bass in church, as well as training classically in orchestra and band. Benjamin was trained in contemporary jazz and Colenburg played in church too. All four members harness and understand the rules, but happily break them and push the definition of jazz, funk and soul. Their chemistry is also obvious and any tension is invisible. All of the Experiment deserves to be on stage; they could hold their own just about everywhere. Their flow during and in between tracks is spotless. They don’t even have a set-list; they just go.
After Hodge’s solo, the band slowly transitioned their cover of Sade’s “Cherish The Day” off of Black Radio. Tonight, the band took their time, letting the track slowly build, with each musician contributing a little here and there, until the track hit its opportune pace. Benjamin kicked in with the synths and vocoter, and then transitioned to the saxophone for a winding and beautiful ode, sounding as if someone was choking the saxophone just enough to alter its tone. The track wouldn’t be out of place in a Wes Anderson film. As the solo continued, Colenburg and Hodge went their own direction, but the track stayed as composed as ever, with Benjamin drilling away. After pushing away from the track, the band found their way back minutes later, to a rousing applause, as they kicked back in to the meat of the song.
After the journey of the pervious track, Glasper decided to switch it up a bit. He played a few bars of some classic standards, as the crowd cheered upon recognition. But his band wasn’t having it, as they shot him dirty looks as he cycled through what felt like a jukebox of hits. As he started each track, the crowd laughed as they surveyed the disapproval of the Experiment, mostly Hodge, injecting some relief and comedy back into the show.
The band continued with “Gonna Be Alright,” which further put the venue at ease. Around halfway into the song, Colenburg bumped up his beat to 32nd notes on the high hat, creating a sense of slow motion throughout the track, as Glasper provided the melody. He then eloquently transition into “Lift Off.” The band dug in, and then slowly faded out leaving Colenburg to a time-shifting solo, as Hodge transitioned back into Radiohead’s “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushed Tin Box.” Colenburg pushed the track to a grinding pace, then back down to a jog, then up and then down, as Glasper played what felt like a sabotage mission to throw off Colenburg, but to no avail. Colenburg continued, pushing into a jam, as the band follow in suit. About seven minutes later, the band dove back into “Lift Off,” bringing it down to a slow crawl. They dove into a final ending then pulled back as Glasper carried forward alone into a beautiful, slightly somber riff.
The set continued with “Ah Yeah” with Hodges and Benjamin picking up the slack of Musiq Soulchild and Chirsette Michele, who appear on the original track. The song is another slow, meditative journey, where what is left out is more important than what is put in. The track rounded out the second act of the show. With one act to go, Glasper took the mic and asked, “Cornbread, if you are in the building, please approach.” Moments later, the rapper Common jumped onto stage, with Glasper saying he “found this MC off the street.” The crowd erupted.
Common took the mic, the band dropped a beat behind him, and he dove into freestyle. So many rap and hip-hop artists today don’t write their own lyrics, but seeing Common freestyle with ease and skill puts him in a category well above the average.
I can stand tall/ Never will I fall/ I came to ball just like Reggie Miller/ But when it come to pass yo I be a rhyme killer/ yo peace to Dilla. And Ras keep doing it, keep on doing it/ come to UCLA and keep on Brunin’ it… that’s just who I is/ when it come to this I be a damn rhyming wiz/ I told you I’m much faster/ give thanks to my man Rob Glasper. The audience loved it.
The exchange between the Experiment and Common was a testament that their music works as the main attraction as well as the backbone. Glasper has talked about how bringing in big names from other genres as well as doing covers and remixes leads to more exposure and makes the music more accessible. Black Radio successfully accomplishes this, with appearances from Lupe Fiasco, Mos Def, Bilal, Ledisi and more.
Common departed and the band transitioned into what would become the main attraction on Black Radio, their cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Glasper spiced up the track with melodic and percussive notes, similar to wood block hits, complimenting Colenburg as Benjamin dug in with the vocoted lyrics. The song is easily recognizable put pleasantly remixed, offering a much more delicate evolution than the original. Benjamin dropped into the recognizable first chorus as everyone else continued, until he cranked up the synth into what sounded like a beautiful collision, then dropped back into the grove.
Then the song dropped, with Colenburg and Hodge digging in, while Glasper and Benjamin provided the soul. The track constantly progresses, climbing pace like a marathon runner. It you only listen to one track of Black Radio, listen to this because the song exhibits everything the Experiment stands for and is capable of.
Glasper has said in multiple interviews that the band doesn’t rehearse, except for the sound check. Even recordings on the album were done in one take except for the track with Mos Def (which they did three times), and “Cherish The Day” on the album was actually the sound check. The Experiment is truly an experiment, but it rarely fails, unlike most. They approached the project with little expectations, which is amazing for such a cohesive compilation of work. One of the main reasons is because of the bands classical training. If they weren’t incredible musicians, and masters of improv, they would be nowhere near as talented.
Glasper mentioned his fellow musicians one more time, before rounding out the concert with one final jam. The exact show that the Experiment put on is like seeing no line at Shake Shack: it will never happen again. Before he departed, Glasper mentioned that Black Radio Vol. II is on its way, “with a slew of new guests.” Like most in attendance that night, I can’t wait. To use Glasper’s verbiage, it should be “Dope as hell.”