One night in 2006 the Robert Glasper Trio was tearing it up onstage, with pianist Glasper painting hypnotic patterns over the frenetic groove of drummer Damion Reid bassist and Vicente Archer. About an hour in, people started walking outfirst in ones and twos, then in groups. It wasn't Ornette Coleman getting punched in the face by a scandalized audience member, but the rebuke was pretty clear. The house was half-full at show's end, and while the trio got a well-deserved standing ovation, it wasn't enough to spur an encore.
The walkout was mysterious. Upon reflectionand after hearing Glasper's intense follow-up to Canvas (Blue Note, 2005), In My Elementit became clear that listening to Glasper is like eating an unshelled lobster: It takes time and perseverance to get to the explosion of flavor inside, and the experience is not for everybody. The sound is akin to the work of E.S.T., whose innovative efforts have caused several critics to foam at the mouth. Add Glasper's hip-hop aesthetic to the recipe, and you can see why traditionalists would head for the exits.
That doesn't mean MCs and turntables drive the bus on Element; Glasper is the first to admit that jazz/hip-hop hybrids "can be corny. Glasper's piano is firmly ensconced in the house of Thelonious Monk and Herbie Hancock, and "One for 'Grew is a righteous homage to Mulgrew Miller. The difference is in the beats, which are laid down at the speed of sound by Reid and Archer, giving the music a hard-charging vibe that belies Glasper's deft touch.
Glasper doesn't cover tunes as much as he samples them. "Y'outta Praise Him takes four of Glasper's favorite gospel hymns, tears them to pieces, and stitches them into a brand new pattern. The jazzification of Radiohead continues when Glasper tosses "Everything in Its Right Place in a blender with Hancock's "Maiden Voyage ; the result is a wild mash-up, with references from both tunes popping up like musical Whack-a-Moles. Even Glasper's figures sound like tape loops, which show great discipline and draw you deeper into the vibe, but the potential for tedium is high.
"J Dillalude is a mosaic of improvisations inspired by the late hip-hop producer J Dilla. The tune is prefaced by a voicemail message from rap superstar Q-Tip, suggesting Glasper include "some Dilla joints, trio style on Element. Rather than re-create the music in the studio, Glasper uses snippets from various concert recordings; the result may be representative of Dilla, but the product is fractured and inconsistent. Another voicemail from Glasper's goddaughter shows where the inspiration for "One for 'Grew came from. "Tribute (written for Glasper's late mother) is lifted from tragedy to victory when Glasper overlays the rousing sermon Reverend Joe Ratliff gave at her funeral.
For all its faults, In My Element is a legitimate attempt to draw the trio jazz format into a new century. The trip may not be for you, but Glasper shows great courage in offering us the ride.