Sunday, August 26, 2007

Stakes Is High: the Robert Glasper trio live at the Village Vanguard

It is rare that I have enough loose capital to venture into the upper-echelon jazz clubs in Manhattan. As a musician and writer it is hard not to be in awe of a joint as historically significant as the Village Vanguard. If you don't know the history of the Village Vanguard, I won't try to fit it all in here. There are far too many books on the subject... it might enough to say that Bill Evans called the club home when he came to NY with his various trios. That Coltrane's first landmark record for the Impulse label was called (and was recorded) Live At the Village Vanguard. That its the club where bassist-composer Charles Mingus tore the front door off of its hinges when the marquee read "Charlie" instead of "Charles." At the Vanguard there is history busting out all over the place. And so its no surprise that last Thursday night history was in the making when Robert Glasper and his trio took the stage of the Village Vanguard.
the entrance fee at the Vanguard is thirty bucks. twenty to see the show and a $10 drink minimum. As there doesn't appear to be a bar anymore (nor is there the legendary kitchen -- where Trane could apparently be heard between sets practicing nonstop) they simply collect the minimum along with the ticket price and offer you a drink menu when you sit down. for this brooklyn boy freelancer, thirty bucks is nearly a week's stipend. however, to see the Robert Glasper trio it was well worth the ensuing week of vegetable fried rice and arizona iced tea.

the big change, recently, seems to be that Glasper had replaced his regular drummer, Damon Reid, with fellow Houston-ite Chris Dave. Chris Dave, who is probably more well known for his hip hop work (but is a damned versatile jazz drummer), meant that this trio was going in to brand new territory. and they did so without blinking. in a sense, with out thinking.

so, to get to the heart of matters, the Robert Glasper trio is: Robert Glasper (piano); Chris Dave (drums); and Vicente Archer (bass). the piano trio is a deceptively complex arrangement. and, sure, it seems simple enough: the pianist basically plays a song while the bass player keeps the harmony straight and the drummer keeps time. but a piano trio is also capable of making such a tremendous din that it sounds like a full orchestra. and the balance between the two extremes is where the careful art of a piano trio is done. by combining forces the three musical entities can become one and inextricable from each other. it might be presumptuous to say that this is the goal of every trio, but it is certainly the success of any great piano trio. and it was the perplexing success of the robert glasper trio.

from the onset it was clear this was going to be a different kind of concert. this band does NOT swing. not by any conventional means, at least. instead they seem to have created a post-bop/post-free sort of propulsion. its as if they have discovered a method (in which Chris Dave is no small part) of balancing space and propulsion in such a way that encourages improvisation without stifling it. this is very hard to do outside of swing. in fact, most fusion or jazz funk suffers from this syndrome. having adopted the backbeat, which has really come to define propulsion in modern music, many so-called jam bands set up a groove and have a soloist play over it. it is very difficult to find space in the groove mostly for three reasons:

1. a groove -- as we've come to understand it today -- depends heavily upon the drums and bass "holding down" a pattern. which severely limits how much they can interact with any soloist.

2. this, consequently, puts the pianist in either the role of creating a harmonic rhythm and interacting with the soloist (to give the illusion of any full-ensemble improvisation) or joining the bass and drums in somewhat ridiculous (though vital) repetition.

and 3. modern grooves come from a sort of post-jazz mentality. funk and hip hop take their cues for musicality from any number of famous James Brown-like breaks over which the improvisation is mainly Brown's riffing or a soloist, again, playing over the groove.

these are the problems that plague any working funkjazz or fusion or "hip hop" band. the grooves may be undeniable, but they can't every go anywhere. making it nearly impossible for a small ensemble (like a piano trio) to do anything of any improvisatory worth... except kill time. (many have valiantly tried: groove collective; medeski, martin and wood; soulive; etc.) the genius of the Robert Glasper trio is that they have changed the dialect of the groove. they have pulled apart the apparent chief elements of grooving and rebuilt a sound that feels groove... but doesn't play it. just as swing isn't necessarily some prescribed drum pattern, but a feeling which the jazz players know to play with, around, and in.

the true triumph of the evening has to fall to the two non-leaders in the group: Archer and Dave. Glaspers's G&B was the first tune of the evening and never to settled into the expected swing rhythm. not the insistent walking bass and ding-ding-a-ding from the drums -- instead a rhythmic pattern was established that expressed the form of the song -- often resulting in a seemingly unchanging bass ostinato that played throughout and Dave's attempts to play the outsides of it with bold courage. by this, they were able to set up a feeling. a nuanced palette -- on which Glasper was able to mix his colors and paint his canvas. but the palette was not static. with each addition by Glasper, it responded by changing. by funneling into the proposed idea or spiraling out from it. these ideas are essential in order to appreciate and understand the trio's dynamic. In fact, it would have been difficult fully appreciate the second tune of the set with out that AND a conversational knowledge of hip hop records... oh, and a familiarity with the Thelonius Monk song book. the second tune was Monk's Think of One (displaced and reinvented over a cryptic poly-rhythmic backbeat) inter-spliced with deceased hip hop producer Jay-Dee's beat from the 1996 De La Soul track Stakes is High. Being familiar with the monk tune and a big fan of De La's Stakes Is High album did not make the pairing any less mind-blowing. i was shocked, intrigued, beguiled, and jealous that they came up with first. But I also thought to myself: Damn -- this is pretty esoteric stuff. Because its easy to get either one of them if you're a jazz head or a hip hop head... but to know both. and be able to hear and appreciate the proposed parity of Monk and Dilla -- well that takes some work!

So one might think, "What is there for Me? I only know the GrindDate (De La's most recent album)." Or "I have that Monk and Coltrane record that came out last year (Evidence, Live at Carnegie Hall)... is Think of One on that?!" Or even if you're a hip hop or jazz fan, but you don't know what the hell i'm talking about when i say peculiar things like "cryptic poly-rhythmic backbeat." One might think: How could i possibly dig this stuff? the answer is simple: while you may not know all the elements involved in the piece, you will still be perfectly able to have you head blown by the sheer power and musicality of the trio -- that IS what's important after all, right? the ideas may be really, really, really interesting... but if the playing is stiff or contrived or deliberately opaque then what does it matter to the casual listener? and why would any music writer decide to write about it? When i wax poetic about this player or that band some cats stop me and ask the pithy question: First things first, man. Can they play?
In the case of Robert Glasper, Chris Dave, and Vincente Archer -- they can play their asses off.

Glasper has affected a sort of gospel-tinged, hiphop-edged Errol Garner approach to the piano. while he did play a few dazzling single note lines, most of his solos were block-chords or counter-points. some of the notes in the chord arrive on the beat. quite a few arrive slightly after the beat. which alludes immediately to a pocket (a depth of groove, for you laymen out there). and for such a chordy player, Glasper is surprising quick and sparse. More comparisons? however odious they might be: there is a hint of Horace Silver's economical funkiness in there; a heavy helping of Herbie Hancock's (bi/tri)tonalities; and a wicked speediness that seems to call upon the tenacity of Charlie Parker. that's not all. Glasper's touch is incredible. that sensitivity to attack is something often missing from today's jazz pianists. Everyone seems to call upon speed and sophisticated chord voicings... but what about making some particular arc of melody really come alive in the ear? that takes care and conscious effort. one has to be aware of the kind of piano they are playing, how hard they are hitting the keys, how to (un-cheesily) integrate the sustain pedal, and the list goes on. Glasper has that going on. And during three extended solo interludes, it was very clear that he had that going on. As for the drums, what can i say about Chris Dave that doesn't smack of adolescent hero-worship? as far as this writer is concerned he is a god among men. he plays like a dead-man walking -- with a seemingly reckless abandon. to the uncareful listener he may come off as sloppy. but all it takes is about half a minute of paying close attention to see that all his bombastic madness is meticulously executed brilliance. when i first heard Chris Dave live about two years ago with Meshell Ndegeocello's Spirit Music Jamia band... i understood what it must have been like to hear Tony Williams with Miles Dave in 1964. the amount of power, nuance, and color coming from the drums is unprecedented and it makes for a very complex counter-point with Glasper's normally already contrapuntive style. it makes the experienced listener wonder how long this inter-woven playing style can be sustained. Only four or five years after Tony joined Miles' band he was so involved in the music that he was finishing the soloists lines. at that point it became hard to listen to the music, everything instrument became part of the in-the-moment improvisation. how well does the average listener hear? is it possible to understand five part polyphony? or does it sound like noise, i wonder.
well, i say enjoy it while it lasts. it may be nonsense now, but in a few years that may become the foundation for the modern jazz trio.

finally, there is the silent partner: Vincente Archer. I've heard Vincent Archer live on several occasions and i'm always impressed with the maturity of his style. younger players seem to expend a lot of energy getting their ideas out -- and some, perhaps, just getting their ideas at all. Archer plays the bass with a buddha-like expression his face. a sort of distant half-smile and he creates a lower melodic territory that most seem to just over look. the best word for Archer is understated. but that is, of course, a understatement. the man is subtlety dancing. most of Glasper's tunes are constructed around a bass ostinato or an elongated vamp section. Archer readily accepts he task of holding it down. but he turns the bassline into another sort melody. one that survives the Glasper-Dave maelstrom by virtue of its solidness and lithesome movement. when there is a slight pause in the deluge of either piano or drums, the bass can be heard singing the ostinato in and out of its original shape and time. breaching the surface of the song like a swooning whale. is that too much? i certainly hope so! because its true. Archer's contributions are what's needed to balance the pyrotechnics of the rest of the group. i hesitate to call any bassplayer an anchor, but in a group that is so top-heavy with propulsion and overt-virtuosity Archer provides the very necessary balance that keeps the music on track. his playing provides a resistance to the careening forward movement and gives the group its dynamic. if i may be so bold as elongate this already very long article with another historical reference (that may or may not provide perspective for the reader) i am reminded of original Oscar Peterson trio. in its worst moments, the trio was a tidal wave of machismo. a speed-and-chops machine that seemed more interesting in playing a tune hard until its structural integrity threatened to break apart than making music. but in its best moments, the wild endless stream of notes played by Peterson was perfectly pushed up against the sure soulfulness of Ray Brown's basslines. creating the pocket. the pocket, people! yes, jazz has a pocket. even when it swings. and that's what so impressive about the Robert Glasper trio, their pocket is undeniable, but hard to pin down. Of course a major part of this is the inherent groovity of the three musicians unto themselves -- but the almost imperceptible contrary motion of Glasper, Dave, and Archer create just the stress-in -time that is needed to make motion feel like motion. *
the third piece (the title, i gather, was not yet set and i don't recall what the possible names were) featured a unison-like head section followed by unaccompanied solos from each instrumentalist. needless to say, it was this tune that set the bar (if it had not already been set). Glasper's solo was a barrage of staggery block chords accented by flashy single and double-note runs. Dave set into his drums like a fey alchemist trying to conjure something other than sound from his kit (it believe he may have severely damaged the head of his snare drum in the process). and Archer played a characteristically symphonic solo complete with leitmotifs and double-stops. each solo seemed tied into the musical information of the piece, but went off into otherly, personal realms for each instrument. what also became startlingly clear that this point was the fluency of each musician with his instrument and with music in general. the unaccompanied solo is quite possible the most dangerous territory for the jazz musician. unaccompanied, the soloist must create musicality with out the bolstering-up of his or her compatriots. as a musician, i have often experienced a fleeting moment of sheer terror at the very beginning of an unaccompanied solo. like jumping suddenly into dark, cold water. even if you are an accomplished swimmer, who knows what beasts or snares lurk beneath the surface. and how will you rise back out again? coherently? lucid? and triumphant? or suddenly? frustrated and shivering? it seems only the most care-free daredevils dare to make this plunge. or the most accomplished and experienced masters.

so are these three masters? it should be too early to tell. a reasonable man wouldn't call them such after one listening. but i can say that i was severely disturbed and moved by the Robert Glasper trio at the Village Vanguard. I myself am not an old man, but i can say with reasonable intelligence that i have not heard music like that in many years. Or that which i have heard was music that was many decades old. i hope fervently that this group stays together. that they continue to plumb the depths of the jazz tradition and hiphop and church music to make their ecstatic compositions. they expose jazz for what it is: an american artform. you, you dear reader!, you must go out and find this trio and take your ever so precious loose capital and pay for admission. sit down as close as you can and observe jazz that, while differing quite obviously from what has come before it, keeps the tradition of the music alive. these young musicians. these young men. in recent years we've lost so many greats -- but there are those taking their places. filling in the gaps. saving us from the vacuous death of most modern music (pop, jazz, classical or otherwise) with their unrelenting spirit and hipness. dig that.


* here i was tempted to go all Stanely Crouch and talk about Newton, Einstein, and general relativity... but i resisted the urge... saving it for those late night conversations around a bottle of Makers Mark where musicians, philosophers, artists, scientist, and madmen convene to shout each other down