Can Robert Glasper save jazz?

Original, brash, dynamic concert attracts a wide audience

Can Robert Glasper save jazz?
By Jazz Spy
November 4, 2012
This fall, SF Jazz has put on a series of brilliant and moving shows that have, in some cases, gone beyond jazz itself and are certainly among the top music shows being produced in the entire country. Some of these concerts transcend genre, and lift themselves to the level of the greatest art. And each of the best shows has originality, power and the ability to draw a whole new generation of listeners.

Take the example of the Robert Glasper Experiment concert November 1, 2012 at the Palace of Fine Arts auditorium. Anyone dropping in to this concert who had not been informed about this group could have thought that they were watching a rock show. Or they could have thought that they were listening to a performance somewhere in between genres. Or they could have thought they were seeing something totally new. Certainly the music, with Glasper on keys, Casey Benjamin on sax and vocoder, Derrick Hodge on bass and Mark Cullenberg on drums, was powerful, direct, and with the kind of jazz funk that is beginning to re-emerge in the outer limits of the music. The sound was loud, brash and drum-centric.

The strange thing is that each one of the new listener’s thoughts would have been correct. Glasper is very careful not to be pinned down. In a pre-concert talk, the band leader indicated that the only idea he was focused on was not being a traditional jazz cover band, doing standards. But that said, this group uses some very traditional roots music of various kinds that include the music of Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Coltrane and even Elvin Jones, Keith Jarrett, and many others as inspirations. There are also sources, like Rap, Soul music, James Brown funk and others that emerge in the complex tapestry of sound that the group produces.

The bottom line is that the rhythm section of Colenburg and Hodge set the table for some very exciting, even thrilling moments. Whether this is a conscious idea or not, Glasper is using the rhythmic idea that goes way back in jazz music history-letting rhythm drive the sound of a band. And most jazz fans know this style through the bands of Coltrane, Weather Report, and most famously, Tony Williams with Lifetime and Miles Davis. Tony came on the scene like a bolt of lightning on a clear day. And his sound perfectly fit the move of the music to an electric sound, with electric bass and highly amplified instruments dominating the stage. Glasper and the group do all this and manage to create an original sound, and despite the challenges for some listeners, it is very much worth the effort to focus on what these young musicians are producing,

And perhaps the most exciting part of the Robert Glasper Band is the fact that they are attracting a multi-racial, multi ethnic and ageless group of listeners. It does not really matter if these people are jazz fans or not. The fact is that the music is fresh, the sound is vibrant, the band is popping, and the audience is experiencing instrumental music in a way that is original and sincere.

This fall, SF Jazz has demonstrated the power of today’s jazz landscape. There is now a sense that San Francisco is becoming more than a way station on the road to New York City. Right here in the City by the Bay are the level of performances that are among the best anywhere. This could be the start of something really big. Robert Glasper has the power to make the new happen. And if he is able to bring in new audiences to the music the way he demonstrated last weekend, he could save jazz from the audience death that is eating away at its core. As with all our serious arts, new artists and styles have defined the music in many eras. Now powerful and creative players are needed more than ever. Jazz institutions that ignore this face do so at their own risk.

Ken Vermes writes as Jazz Spy. He remembers the moment living in Noe Valley when Jeff Ballard, living down the stairs, sounded like more that an amateur. Soon Jeff would be on the Tonight Show playing with Ray Charles.

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