Houston-raised, New York-based pianist Robert Glasper's Blue Note debut is only his second CD as a leader, but one would be hard pressed to find a single argument against his being ready for the big-time jazz limelight. The 67 minutes of music on Canvas
are packed with richly memorable compositions, virtuosic playing, unassumingly exotic harmony and superlative group interplay. It's the most startlingly fine debut on Blue Note in quite a while.
This is, for the most part, a trio recording (tenor player Mark Turner and vocalist Bilal appear on two songs apiece) and the three-way interplay of Glasper, bassist Vicente Archer, and drummer Damion Reid is evidence that the jazz piano trio format is far from exhausted. This is Glasper's working band, and one can hear the fruits of their time together in their utter connectedness; these are Glasper's compositions (with the exception of a cover of Herbie Hancock's "Riot ), but these three play as equalsno one's holding back or deferring to the leader. For that matter, no one is acting as a simple timekeeperand while the rich melodicism of Glasper's melodies would make this music palatable to the most conservative of mainstream jazz listeners, the liquid, shifting, mixed-meter playing of this group subtly undermine that "mainstream tag in a way that's altogether novel.
"Rise and Shine would be a classic, memorable tune even with a cowed, robotic rhythm section. Invigorated with Reid's deft, skittering snare rolls and Archer's melodic but muscular bass linesas well as the leaders's independent left-hand lines and chordsthe piece takes on a vibrant, shimmering life, without sacrificing an iota of its tuneful charm. Tenor man Mark Turner guests on the epic title track and is a crucial part of its brooding, wistful, uncloying loveliness. Built around a simple, almost Renaissance-music melody, its effortless mixed-meter momentum fuels some of Glasper's most gorgeous soloing. Turner's own solo is typically majestic, and Glasper's cascading fills under Turner's lines are sublime. "North Portland and "Remember, the two tracks that close the album, are essentially versions of these two tracks, sibling songs that intentionally rework the same melodic materiala sort of real-life remixing that gives the album a feeling of unity and palindromic balance.
Portrait of an Angel is a fascinating ballad that morphs in and out of waltz time; the band's metric shifts and overall lightness of touch give the song a shifting, rubato feel, even when its time is concrete, and one can only savor the way Archer's bass gooses Glasper's piano statements forward. "Enoch's Meditation is illustrative of Glasper's taste and restraintwith all the technique in the world, he plays spaciously, choosing emotional impact over empty grandiosity. Reid almost shockingly begins playing a static, adamant hip-hop pattern towards the end of the piece, producing a visceral, postmodern rub against Glasper's deeply human playing.
If the album has a weak point, it's "Chant, a hodgepodge of wordless Bilal vocals, stacked polyrhythms, and the leader on piano and Fender Rhodes. Despite its exoticism, it's rather self-conscious and dull. However, one unsuccessful track cannot derail an otherwise tremendous album.
Track Listing: Rise and Shine; Canvas; Portrait of an Angel; Enoch's Meditation; Centelude; Jelly's Da Beener; Chant; Riot; North Portland; Remember.
Personnel: Robert Glasper: piano, Fender Rhodes (7,8,10), kalimba (7); Vicente Archer: bass; Damion
Reid: drums; Mark Turner: tenor saxophone (2,8); Bilal: vocals (7,10).