Robert Glasper brings “Black Radio” back to Oakland!

One of my favorite things to do is to get out, see, hear and feel, live music, and I had my first chance to do that a few weeks back, when the Robert Glasper Expiriment came through The New Parish in Oakland, California. I couldn’t have had a better group to get my feet wet with.

Glasper is an artist I’ve been following for some time. Him and his group are currently riding high after taking home the Grammy for Best R&B album. Every now and then the NARAS people give the award to somebody based on the quality of their music and tries to make a stand for music that’s not 100% image based. In Glaspers case, when I told most people around me who I was going to see, their response was, “who.” Glasper is getting a great write up in various music media outlets and among a certain type of “neo-soul”, “conscious hip hop”, jazz interested crowd, but not much noise outside of that group. Our local R&B station, KBLX, used to feature a quiet storm format that included classic soul, funk, and disco, and lots of urban adult contemporary music. I mean, this station was huge on Sade, Anita Baker, Luther Vandross, Jefferey Osbourne, Frankie Beverley and Maze, the Whispers, Grover Washington Jr, George Benson, Al Jarreau, Waymon Tisdale, and others of that ilk. They wouldn’t play “All Night Long” too much, but they would sure enough rock “Love Will Find a Way.”

It was also a great place to find out about smooth jazz type recordings. I know smooth jazz is anathema to most people (myself included), but I remember my dad purchasing some great albums based on KBLX airplay back in the ’90s. Albums by Randy Crawford, Joe Sample, the Crusaders, George Duke, Craig T Cooper and many others. KBLX was the station that played Hidden Beach’s “Unwrapped” jazz hip hop fusions back in the ’00s. In the early ’90s they played Miles Davis “Doo Bop” LP. “Unwrapped” didn’t get any play on the local hip hop stations, even though it was versions of hip hop songs that particular album featured. Point is, the old KBLX would have been the perfect showcase for “Afro Blue”, “Gonna Be Alright”, “Cherish the Day”, almost any track on Glasper’s “Black Radio” LP. Glasper’s LP is part of a long tradition of jazzy music based on sophisticated R&B songs.

Glasper was born in Houston, Texas, just like those other heroes of Jazz fusion, the (Jazz) Crusaders. He also went to school with Mrs. Knowles-Carter herself, that force of nature known as Beyonce. He’s always been a straight ahead jazz pianist but he’s also put in a lot of work in the hip hop scene, being an associate of Bilal and working with acts such as Common, Maxwell, and Mos Def.

His “Black Radio” LP is exactly the type of LP that makes me wish my father was alive. Pops was a hardcore jazz man of a Hard Bop bent, a big fan of Sonny Rollins, Coltrane, Miles, Donald Byrd, Lee Morgan, Dizzy Gillespie and others with that modern jazz bent. But he also was a huge fan of blusier artists such as the Crusaders, Stanley Turrentine, Wes Montgomery, Cannonball Adderly, and Jimmy Smith. Glasper builds up a new brand of “jazz fusion”, based in the chill out tones of “neo-soul” and jazz influenced hip hop (A Tribe Called Quest, Gang Starr, the Philadelphia Sound, Erykah Badu). The result is kind of on the mellow side, but the music has a strong groove that pulls you in, in the vein of Sade.

The New Parish, in the DTO (DownTown Oakland) was the perfect venue to see Glasper and his group in. The New Parish building was formerly the site of a somewhat notorious club in Oakland called Sweet Jimmie’s. Sweet Jimmie’s was known in my time for being a club that older people frequented that would play soul, funk, jazz, disco, and for having a regular TV program that broadcast on local low budjet, public access cable station known as SoulBeat. Every weekend you could turn on your TV and see older folks getting down at Sweet Jimmies and lip synching to soul hits. I watched this all through my teenage years on TV, but I didn’t dare step foot in Jimmie’s when I came of age. Although in the early ’00s it became popular with young folks, which eventually led to it’s demise as an institution.

As I qued in line to enter the venue, I thought of this history. It trips me out to be standing in line with a multiracial group of individuals waiting to go into The New Parish and vibe on some world class music. In many ways, it’s still Sweet Jimmie’s to me, but then again it isn’t, because although I was seriously familiar with Jimmie’s, I never went in when it was cracking. So the Parish is a new thing for me. It’s a great, intimate, large club type concert setting, the type of place where the artists are walking around in the courtyard before the show (which Glasper did). The venue has a great open air courtyard where one can sit outside, sip on their libation of choice, toke on their smoke of choice, and take in the vibes of the music.

I had one of my OG buddies with me, Ken, and he’d frequented Jimmie’s several times and couldn’t believe the changes the venue had undergone. Most times myself and my peers try to tell some of the older folks about the changes DTO has undergone and the active social life that exists there currently, (relatively) drama free. They usually come away with a mixture of amazement at the changes and mixed emotions over gentrification. But besides all that, they generally have a good time!

Oakland’s own Kev Choice opened the show up. Kev had a band that featured, in addition to bass, drums, guitar, and himself on keys, a young lady on violin. Kev is a major musician who has worked with people like Lauryn Hill and Too Short and continues to call the Bay Area home.  The band was tight, he played keyboards well, and he also impressed me by rapping, both from behind the keyboards, and from the front man position, center stage. I have seen the Kev Choice Ensemble open up for several top notch groups at the New Parish and I enjoyed them more on this particular night than ever before, and I always enjoy them, I especiallydug the textures the violinist brought to the heavy hip hop/funk beats and the thick harmonic wall.

Glaspers album was heavy on great cameo’s, it was almost like a Quincy Jones album for the Neo-Soul movement. Erykah Badu, Lalah Hathaway, Lupe Fiasco, Bilal, Ledisi, Musiq Soulchild, Chrisette Michelle, Meschell N’degeocello, Stokely Williams, and Yalsin Bey (aka Mos Def) made the album flow like The Dude, or Back on the Block, or Sounds…and Stuff Like That.

At this particular date, he had Mr. Cory Benjamin with him as his front man. Benjamin is an excellent performer who wears a unique hairstyle of dreadlocks that rise from his head in a regal pompadour. On this nite he sang through a vocoder to handle the vocals on songs like “Afro Blue” and “Cherish the Day.” His vocoder singing was not like the guitar controlled talk box of Roger Troutman, but more in line with the emotional keyboard vocal tones Herbie Hancock used on songs such as “I thought it was You”, and he especially reminde me of Herbie’s  “Come Running to Me”.  This Herbie influenced vibe especially fit in well with Glaspers Fender Rhodes toned comping. Benjamin did whip out his saxophone once to do some fluent bop jazz type soloing.

The vocoder vocals of Mr. Benjamin, Glaspers unique Fender Rhodes textures, and the whip tight rhythm section, all conspired to cast a hypnotizing spell over Oakland that night. At one point Glasper told us it was the first concert since winning the Grammy and that he was celebrating it with Oakland. Then he asked for three vodka cranberry’s. I felt of the moment because that was also what I was drinking (in moderation) that night.

They finnished the evening with one of my favorite songs on the album, “Oh Yeah”, which features the lyrics “cause I’ve learned in this life/you’ve gotta be with someone you like.” Words to go home on for real.

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5 Comments

Filed under All That Jazz, Music Matters

5 responses to “Robert Glasper brings “Black Radio” back to Oakland!

  1. I’m surprised Glasper didn’t call up Esperanza Spalding for the Black Radio sessions, They are obviously on the same page. Recently, he did record with Jill Scott, probably just as a session player but I believe he can also produce a killer album for Jilly from Philly that would rival her debut release.

    Cory Benjamin is an ace musician and really serves as the heart of the group. Glasper is indeed more Herbie than Q, in both music and persona. The Quincey Jones of the Neo-Soul movement is undoubtedly Questlove. If he’ll ever make a solo album, imagine the featured cameos on that one!

    I would have loved to check out Sweet Jimmie’s. Any surviving footage of the place or SoulBeat?

  2. Yeah, Glasper is much more in the Herbie vein, in terms of being a gifted instrumentalist who makes straight ahead jazz and “funky” stuff, is fluent in both idioms and well respected. Herbie’s albums had lots of cameo’s too, but they tended to come from other great musicians, like Bootsy, Sugarfoot, Ray Parker Jr. Stevie Wonder, etc. I could never see Herbie or Glasper giving up their piano playing no matter how big of an album they create, but as much as Questlove loves his drums, I can see him producing without them, a la Al Green’s “Lay it Down.” Definitley Questlove could make a “Dude” type album, and he has the credibility with the Grammy people to win Album of the Year for it too!

    Good point you make on the Spaulding/Glasper connection. Interestingly she recently did an album entitled “Radio Music Society”, to Glasper’s “Black Radio”, so there is a definite symmetry there!

  3. Robert Glasper has all the qualities of someone, through both his song and collaborative choices, has all the personal ingredients that would allow him to perhaps change how music enthusiasts view about innovation in music in the past twenty years. As you pointed out, he’s someone who like “Q” has been able to gather up a number of like minded artists in a contemporary musical idiom. Unlike Norman Connors, however I view Glasper as someone who can easily stand on his own (especially on the concert/club, for example) in terms of his musicality.

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