“I'm under-dressed," Yasiin Bey said apologetically Tuesday night (March 28) at New York City’s Highline Ballroom. The rapper formerly known as Mos Def wore a gray shirt with his sleeves folded up, light blue jeans, and a baseball cap. If the guest MC was under-dressed, then the evening’s headliner—Texas jazz pianist Robert Glasper, wearing a black skully and matching tee—was damn near bummy. Glasper popped up from his bench, taking exception to the remark. “What you trying to say?" he asked. “Oh, Rob,” Bey answered. “You know I love you.”
Oddly enough, the audience—there to soak in some cuts from Glasper’s new album Black Radio (Blue Note), an impressive swirl of funk, hip-hop, R&B, soul, and of course jazz—looked better than the guys on stage. It was an elegant crowd of 20- and 30-somethings, filled with men in paperboy caps and well-tailored blazers, and women proudly displaying their natural hair at various lengths, all ready for a live dive into the tender and at times militant set.
Bathed in blue spotlights, The Robert Glasper Experiment began with Coltrane's “A Love Supreme,” 15 minutes of masterfully played instrumental jazz. The thing about a Robert Glasper show is that every song gets love. None of the selections are breezed through—instead, each becomes an extended version of the album cut, featuring multiple breakdowns, reinterpretations and an eclectic array of special guests.
Such was the case with Radio’s “Ah Yeah” and “Afro Blue,” for which Chrisette Michele hit the stage to coo and scat. The same went for R&B crooner Bilal, who stepped out to perform “Letter to Hermoine.” Bey provided the hip-hop flavor, performing “Black Radio” with his trademark red microphone and partnering with Bilal to run through “Reminisce” in memory of J Dilla. Lalah Hathaway popped in to cover Sade’s “Cherish the Day.” And when the stage wasn’t brightened with guest artists, band member Casey Benjamin (also of HEAVy) kept it well lit with his dexterous play on saxophones, keytar, and vocoder.
Though all these acts seem comfortable making their nonconformist brand of hip-hop and R&B, it’s a shame they aren’t bigger names in their own right. If their popularity matched their skill levels, they'd be as big as the Biebs. Perhaps that’s the subliminal message behind Glasper’s album title—it’s the kind of Black music that we’d like to hear more of on the airwaves, but that too often gets “blacked out.”
True to jazz culture, the entire night seemed like it was only rehearsed to a point. Many moments felt like calculated improvisation. Glasper proved to be a charming host, tossing out quaint anecdotes about his guests (He first met Bilal as a student at The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in 1997; they became friends because, “You know, there weren’t many Black folks there.”) Nor was Glasper bashful about playing salesman, reminding fans that the album was, in fact, out now and that you could buy one. “There’s vinyl, too,” he declared joyfully.
The crowd responded in kind, always respectful, listening intently and replying with claps and whoops when the moment permitted. Really, he didn’t need to boast that Black Radio was topping iTunes’ jazz albums chart or that it’s currently No. 3 overall. He was preaching to the choir. These true believers were the ones responsible for boosting those sales. And with or without help from radio, they’ll be spreading the Glasper gospel. Like Bey, they love him.
Written by Brad Wete (@bradwete)