To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Walker Performing Arts Intern and the host of Radio K’s jazz program Sound Grammar Sam Segal shares his perspective on Jason Moran & Robert Glasper at the Walker. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!
I’ll admit it: my expectations for Jason Moran and Robert Glasper’s piano duet on Saturday night weren’t all that high. I adore Moran’s achingly beautiful duo album with saxophonist Charles Lloyd, Hagar’s Song (2013), as well as his subtle grace on Paul Motian’s Lost in a Dream (2010). Glasper, however, I’d never cared for very much. No, let’s try that again: Glasper, however, I’d always proclaimed not to care for very much.
After a few cursory listens to his breakthrough album Black Radio back in 2012, Glasper seemed to me to symbolize everything that was wrong with the narrative surrounding contemporary jazz. Music critics hailed the pianist’s fusion of jazz with hip-hop, soul, and R&B as the thing that would save what they perceived as a dying genre, out of touch with anything outside of its own insular world. “Slapping hurts, but at some point it’ll wake you up. I feel like jazz needs a big-ass slap,” Glasper told DownBeat a few months after the release of Black Radio. To me, the idea that jazz had stopped engaging with the world outside of conservatories and posh clubs seemed absurd, and anyone who saw it like that hadn’t really been paying attention to the fertile avant scene happening on the fringes. In my mind, Glasper was the conservative jazz world’s bland excuse to pat itself on the back and say, “We’re hip to this rap music the kids are into these days.” Did it matter to me that I’d made this judgment after listening to one Robert Glasper album like maybe two-and-a-half times? Hell no! I was a pretentious nineteen-year-old with a point to make. So, it was with a certain amount of internal struggle on Saturday night that I finally admitted to myself that Robert Glasper truly is one of the great pianists in contemporary jazz.
Throughout the duo’s performance (I caught the first of the night’s two shows), Glasper and Moran played with incredible wit and off-the-cuff beauty. They managed to blend the playful exploration of a jam session with the unabashed emotionality of a solo recital. Glasper’s lyricism and remarkable melodic sensitivity frequently reminded me of Keith Jarrett, and at times his percussive chops rivaled those of McCoy Tyner. During a song he performed solo (composed by Herbie Hancock, although I didn’t quite catch the title), it dawned on me how much Glasper has internalized the aesthetics of hip-hop. His brand of fusion goes way beyond the acoustic hip-hop of a band like the Roots, in which live instruments simply play what would usually be sampled. Glasper approaches the piano like a DJ, treating melodies and rhythms like breaks he can sample, remixing himself constantly as he moves through a piece.
Each player’s personality pushed the other into unexplored territory. After a gutbucket boogie-woogie workout inspired by Albert Ammons and Meade “Lux” Lewis warmed up the crowd, Moran gestured towards more ethereal territory, and his partner followed suit. Midway through the show, the two mounted a stunning reinterpretation of rapper Kendrick Lamar’s “How Much A Dollar Cost,” a cut from this year’s To Pimp a Butterfly, a critically-adored record that featured Glasper’s piano on a number of tracks. While Moran held down the song’s haunting melody, Glasper mimicked the rhythmic spitting of an emcee with an impromptu modification to his piano: a plastic bottle of water and a can of Folgers to mute a section of the strings. Moran took the suggestion and placed a ceramic bowl on the low-end strings of his piano, creating a clanking drone as his fingers moved furiously across the bass keys. Two prepared pianos playing a dissonant and hypnotizing version of one of the year’s darkest hip-hop songs was a far cry from the “safe” show I was afraid these two would put on.
The eight o’clock show ended with another classic hip-hop song: “My Block” by their fellow Houston-native, Scarface. After Moran announced the song, a few cheers in the audience (one of them admittedly coming from me) prompted him to dub Scarface “a great jazz composer.” On a vintage Fender Rhodes, Glasper let out bursts of gospel-inflected praise while Moran laid down different takes on the song’s soulful piano sample. The duo left the crowd on an uplifting high note, the picture of two contemporary greats joyfully nominating a new standard for adoption into the jazz cannon.