It’s the first thing Robert Glasper said before his performance last night after the crowd applauded his entrance, but it’s more than just a word. It’s the syrupy, sly tone he says it in that gets underneath the audience’s skin. It becomes a whispering echo among the crowd: cool. A pure expression that goes beyond the boundaries of that simple, monosyllabic word. In the same breath he makes a joke about the pronunciation of "poutine;" this word is followed by an eruption of laughter. That’s really what it comes down to with any Robert Glasper performance: it’s an unpredictable experience that can’t quite be captured outside of its own moment, but manages to resonate beyond the barriers of space and time.
The Jane Mallett Theatre was the perfect location for such an experience. Capping out at just fewer than 500 people, the space provided an intimate environment that drew the listeners and performers closer together. Indeed, the audience was involved before the show even started through their crescendo of chatter, the excitement building up until the lights faded out. The steep incline seating further granted full viewing and participatory pleasure; since the crowd plays such and integral role in the trio’s performance philosophy, the theatre was a huge benefit. This intimacy was crucial—the line between audience and performer became blurred, allowing the music to make its fullest emotional impact.
The night opened with Prince’s “Sign o’ the Times,” a rendition that didn’t make the cut on Glasper’s most recent release Covered, despite its flawless, improvisatory delivery. Though it’s been six years since they last came together on Double Booked (before Glasper’s two-time Grammy-winning project The Robert Glasper Experiment took the scene), the trio still managed to lay down a tight performance. As drummer Damion Reid trickled in with a spasmodic hi-hat and snare beat shuffling alongside bassist Vincente Archer’s pulsing thump, it’s evident that chemistry was not an issue. Glasper cheekily taps the keyboard near the top of the piano before gliding into his first whisper of a solo, and the magic began.
Though initially the bass was low in the mix and the kick drum was a bit muddy, the sound levels were just right as the trio fell into the classic jazz standard “Stella By Starlight.” With Reid’s impressive brush work chugging along, Glasper showcased his idiosyncratic playing style. As Glasper stated, “there’s no preconceived set;” it’s all about feeling where the crowd is at and discovering their energy. When someone shouts out for J Dilla, Archer and Reid break out before Glasper can put down the mic. Between polyrhythmic staggers of augmented harmonies to the lovely, neo-soul clusters he fans out with heavy sustain, it’s obvious why he’s been crowned as a leader of a new generation of jazz.
It’s not just his playing and improvisation that’s earned him this title; it’s his ability to incorporate music of all genres in his creative output. His recent work on Kendrick Lamar’s groundbreaking album To Pimp a Butterfly speaks volumes to this, but it’s even more evident in the diverse crowd. Both the group of bros slurping beers and the older couple sipping wine beside them bobbed their heads when Glasper swept into a cover of “How Much a Dollar Cost,” the song evolving from melancholy swells before flying away into a flutter of major tones. He carries out each song like a story, the crowd lost in the world of the performance as the characters played out the plots and motifs of the music.
Like any complex and captivating story, there are often messages between the lines. Glasper made a point of bringing some of these subjects to the forefront through stirring voiceovers, resulting in some of the most touching moments of the concert. As the band came around to the ostinato and into a decrescendo, Harry Belafonte’s gritty voice filled the room: “I’m one of the ones of colour that got over.” It’s a riveting speech about overcoming obstacles and enduring struggle, complimented by a breezy 4/4 groove that instils Belafonte’s monologue with hope. During “So Beautiful,” Musiq Soulchild himself came through the speakers in the form of a pre-recorded voicemail. He thanks Glasper for including his song on his latest album before advocating for self-empowerment and inner beauty.
But it’s during Glasper’s own “In Case You Forgot” that the trio is at its pinnacle. It started off with stumbling arpeggios just learning to walk along the keys before Glasper found a chromatic rhythm in his left hand, sprinkling accents with the right. All of a sudden Reid and Archer came in with a single punch before Glasper took off again. And then it’s as if someone has hit shuffle on Glasper’s repertoire: he’s playing “Piano Man,” the crowd cheering him on through a handful of pop hits. As the song title suggests, Glasper reminded the audience of the musical past, but he’s evoking more than just old chart-toppers. As Archer and Reid took their own stunning solos of intense speed and fluid dynamics, the audience was reminded that music is a collaborative effort between songs, musicians and listeners.
So when the band left the stage, the audience did their part in keeping the music alive through a standing ovation. The night closed with a sentimental encore performance of Jhené Aiko’s “The Worst” and Kendrick Lamar’s “I’m Dying of Thirst,” this last piece being especially moving. It featured voice clips of Glasper’s son and his friends reciting the names of 25 victims of police brutality, whirring out in a swirl of reverb before Glasper descended into the final, sorrowful notes.
The air was still—and the moment was complete. Space and time pieced themselves back together as the crowd shuffled out of the theatre, but the emotions evoked lingered past the front doors and into the memory of every individual. Though the concert was over, the distinctive experience of the Robert Glasper Trio was one that will live on well beyond the walls of the Jane Mallett.