It’s London Jazz Festival and the contrast between Saturday’s matinee concert at the icy but well appointed Milton Court, part of the London Guildhall music school and tonight couldn’t be greater. Saturday’s concert was a Norwegian/Afghan/German interpretation of Lutheran hymns in a Muslim language. Tonight we are at the sweatbox that is Koko in Camden, for a night of jazz, funk, neo soul, hip hop and a few stops in between with the Robert Glasper Experiment.
Glasper is an experienced Texan keyboard player and producer who has a number of strands to his career. He performs straight up piano based jazz in a trio and he also fronts up the Experiment which takes jazz and moves it toward the current black music scene. When he introduced his band at Koko and who they had worked with, it was evident just how pervasive Glasper and his sidekicks are in the contemporary scene. It was like a roll call of the current leaders in the field – Kendrick Lamar, Beyonce, Solange, D’Angelo, Common, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott. This wasn’t the soft but angular Scandinavian piano jazz that we’d seen Gustavsen produce. This was blues based urban music, funky as hell.
I’m pretty convinced at present that a significant portion of the seriously (and I place additional emphasis on “seriously”) good music is being produced these artists. The current albums by Beyonce and Solange, “To Pimp A Butterfly”, Kamasi Washington’s triple LP, the last D’Angelo LP, Blood Orange’s “Freetown Sound”, Eska’s debut LP, Gregory Porter’s recent albums, Pharrell, Odissee, THEESatisfaction. Anderson.Paak’s “Malibu” – well, I think that they are up there with the golden age of Seventies black music. These albums stand comparison to Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, Sly Stone, Gil Scott-Heron, Roberta Flack, Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway, The Isley’s et al. They really are that good. There’s more innovation and invention in this area of music in 2016 than in rock, pop, indie, whatever you want to call it. Rhythmically, melodically, sonically – this is where it is at for me.
Glasper’s stew of these different styles is a crowd pleaser too. Koko was packed to the rafters. I know because, for part of the show I was in the upper balcony before managing to squeeze into the main stage area. The place was bouncing with one of the most generationally and ethnically divers audiences that I’ve seen in a good while. One of the great thing’s that Glasper does is make the music accessible. A liberal sprinkling of crowd pleasing covers (“Roxanne”, “Summer Breeze”) mix with some challenging songs by other artists (Radiohead’s “Everything In It’s Right Place” and Herbie Hancock’s “Tell Me A Bedtime Story”), his own R’n’B material (“Thinkin About You”) and some more stretched out numbers that would sit alongside current BlackCountryRock favourite Floating Points. There were a couple of numbers that featured Glasper on a distorted electric piano and his frontman Casey Benjamin on soprano sax that stretched improvisation beyond the ten minute mark and didn’t drag. People didn’t rush for the exits because there was plenty of engagement and personality on offer. What was lacking at the Go-Go Penguin gig at the same venue earlier in the year was there by the bucketload at Glasper’s concert. It was helped by Glasper’s personality – between the songs he was humorous, self-deprecating and informative. He’s also worked with his bandmates for year and it is clear that there is a close intimate connection between them. It made for a great package.
Glasper’s career is going from strength to strength. He already has two Grammy’s under his belt including Best R&B Album for “Black Radio”. He was the musical director for the recent Miles Davis biopic “Miles Ahead”. He is part of the new vanguard on Blue Note, the old jazz label that I wrote about here that is experiencing a rebirth courtesy of a progressive attitude to its catalogue including the likes of Gregory Porter and Kandace Springs alongside Glasper and Norah Jones.
His new album “Art Science” is probably the most accessible of the Experiment albums, once the angular opener “This Is Not Fear” is out the way. It includes another of Glasper’s interesting covers, the Human League’s “Human”, following “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and David Bowie’s “Letter to Hermione” on recent albums. The “Art Science” material translated well live, its immediacy welcomed by the crowd. Glasper was sat at the right of the stage with a variety of keyboards whilst his colleagues, led by Benjamin on a keytar, provided a shifting backdrop. He was even British R&B star Omar Lye-Fook (“There’s Nothing Like This), who added his sweet vocals.
The set was 2.5 hours long and flew by. Glasper invited everyone back to an aftershow party in Shoreditch. It was a school night and I was flagging. I hit the road wishing that the quality of the London Jazz Festival could be maintained all year around.