Tuesday, March 29, 2011
Robert Glasper at the Dakota
My two big gripes about jazz shows go together: the cover is too high and the set is too short. So when I heard that the brilliant young pianist Robert Glasper was going to do a single set at the Dakota with a $20 cover, I felt almost duty-bound to attend.
All the good seats were gone by the time I’d made up my mind, unfortunately, and I ended up on a stool against the back wall of the mezzanine. I could see the heads of the drummer and bassist, but Glasper himself was only visible when one of the men seated at the table by the rail overlooking the stage went to the bathroom. I could see the entire trio perfectly on the TV screen hanging at eye level on the wall behind the stage—but that’s not quite the same thing. I also wandered around a bit for a change of perspective.
By my reckoning, the show was 135 minutes long—a long set by anyone’s measure. And Glasper and his rhythm section sounded much like I expected them to sound. I like his style to the sound of leaves rustling. Listening to Glasper is the aural equivalent of watching the waves come in, mesmerized by the flow, the power, the uniformity, yet keenly intent on detecting the tidal shifts, the currents, the changes, within the shimmering, repetitive chords and arpeggios. All the while the bassist keeps the lower register churning and the drummer lays down a crisp, light ratta-tat-tat punctuated by a rim-shots now and again.
It’s a unique sound. A different conception of what music is supposed to do. Rather Asian, perhaps (though Glasper played the piano in three different churches as a youth in Houston, TX) and definitely far removed from the structural roots of jazz in the blues and the pop tunes of Hollywood musicals and Tin Pan Alley.
But there’s a fine line between “mesmerizing” and “monotonous.” Glasper’s trio crossed back and forth repeatedly. They also crossed occasionally into a domain of feverish improvisation that took me pleasantly by surprise.
At one point Glasper asked the audience if they wanted to hear “old” or “new.” Among the feeble call-outs “old” had the upper hand. “Oh, so you’re not interested in what I’m working on now?” Glasper remarked, as if his feelings had been hurt, and broke into “Take the ‘A’ Train.” It sounded good to me—that solid chord structure, that catchy tune. But it lasted only a few seconds. He followed it with a few bars of Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” Once again, tantalizingly brief. Then it was back to the signature ambient music—rustling chords, ethereal harmonies.
Glasper finished the set with a tune I recognized: it may have been “Of Dreams to Come” from the album In My Element. It was great. It’s the new music he’s devised. Subtle and remarkable. But perhaps better suited to a shorter set?