Robert Glasper Trio brings experimental jazz to campus

By Izzy Yellen

On Friday, May 1, the Robert Glasper Trio came to Lawrence University to perform in the Lawrence Memorial Chapel, closing the 2014-15 Jazz Series. Before the concert, Robert Glasper opened up his soundcheck so anyone could ask questions and see him and the band warm up.

Glasper’s Q&A was a bit different than the typical masterclass due to its relaxed, conversational nature. For a little over an hour, Glasper sat at the edge of the stage and gave his time to those who wanted to listen. He gave students an opportunity to ask questions so he could get to know his audience and give them advice and insight.

Among some of the topics discussed were his beginnings in music and jazz, recording in a studio, the direction of jazz, and finding a unique voice. Glasper gave in-depth answers to all questions, often going on interesting tangents filled with helpful tips and humorous anecdotes. The fact that he took the time to not only acquaint himself with his audience, but also give guidance was admirable and enhanced the following concert.

“I love playing at colleges because this is the time where people get really influenced,” Glasper shared. “This is the time period where people start breaking and not being a musician because of certain things that happened. They need their pep talks and some food for thought.” While he was able to give everyone there both of these things, he was also able to do it in a personable and enjoyable way.

After the half-hour long soundcheck and hour long Q&A, the bulk of attendees seemed content and excited, even without the upcoming concert. When the concert began, all of the audience opened their ears and became attentive and eager to listen.

First impressions are important when musicians step onto the stage. Even though a handful of us had already gotten to be somewhat familiar with Glasper, the rest of the audience got an unusual first impression of him. After sitting down at the piano bench, he shared his excitement about Cozzy Corner and giggled a lot. He was incredibly relaxed and exuded a chill demeanor, which confused some people.

Despite this personality, he was focused when he started playing. So much care was put into each note he played, and it was apparent he was very invested in the music he was playing. This was also true for the other two members—Brandon Owens on bass and Damion Reid on drums—but easier to see in Glasper since he was featured much more. Highlights included many accompanied solos, most notably a beautiful, somber rendition of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

One thing that gives Glasper and his various groups their unique sound is the fusion of jazz with hip-hop and soul. While this is an increasingly popular practice in jazz, most musicians have found their niche and own specific sound. The Robert Glasper Trio incorporates many elements of the two non-jazz genres—such as licks being vamped like a hip-hop sample or soulful, poppy chord progressions rather than jazzy ones—while still staying acoustic. This acoustic piano triois in contrast to the Robert Glasper Experiment, an electronic act.

Reid played with this melding of multiple genres as well, creating complex backing beats that sounded electronic due to their precision and technicality. While he wasn’t featured a whole lot other than his few drum solos, his ability to accompany the piano while remaining interesting was fantastic.

Owens also often just accompanied the piano, but sometimes doubled the melody. While Glasper’s playing was usually laid-back and Reid’s was busy and active, Owens leaned towards Glasper, providing tension between the two moods. Without this tension, the moments of release would not resonate nearly as well with the audience.

The best parts of the concert were when the trio experimented and just played to see what would happen. These moments were not extremely frequent, and while I enjoyed the rest of the concert, I wish they had occurred more often. During one piece, all members messed with different grooves, licks and feels to create a multitude of hip-hop beats. These moments showcased their collaborative, on-the-spot talents of listening and knowing what sounds can make intriguing music. It is one thing for one person to improvise and sound hip, but a whole other venture for a group to successfully do so.

This concert and Q&A were incredible experiences, and I am grateful for Robert Glasper’s desire to take the time to not only put on a great show, but also to sit down and talk to some impressionable musicians like myself. Next year’s Jazz Series will feature Cyrille Aimée, Rufus Reid and his quartet, the Ambrose Akinmusire Quartet, and the Kurt Rosenwinkel New Quartet.