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The Robert Glasper Experiment at SXSW

Anthony Dean-Harris
Editor-in-Chief / @i_ADH

The Elephant Room on Congress Avenue was a tiny, phone signal-blocking cellar with hardly enough elbow room to get a decent drinking form down and enough blocked sightlines to give Morgan Freeman and Angelina Jolie from that movie Wanted (Remember that movie a couple years ago? That movie with the curving of the bullets? That was pretty dope.) some problems. The sound was glitchy. The sound guy was a touch inept, even after the advice of many in the crowd (including Chicago pianist Josh Moshier who was in attendance). Robert Glasper seemed to wait an eternity for his vodka and cranberry juice. The prior act was atrocious and saw no reprieve of shade from my compatriots. It's just the kind of ragtag show one would expect from the largest music festival in the country. The great acts here either make the best of the few shows they have or perform so often over the course of the four days of the music festival that their frequency overpowers the ramshackle nature of the venues. The Robert Glasper Experiment had just one shot to pull their official SXSW show off on the night of March 15th, and their performance likely set a new high bar for the greatness that comes from this festival.

The Experiment capped things off a little late due to the sound issues with John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme", a tune the band has been starting many of their shows with lately but in this particular case was particularly important to play through as a extra bit of soundchecking. It didn't take long for the small crowd (the tiny club was full to capacity, there couldn't be any more than 80 folks in there, Darcy James Argue was even stuck ouside) to marvel at the group's talent. Afterwards, Casey Benjamin outright merked it on an extended saxophone solo. Seriously, the saxophone is over. The pinnacle has been reached. I, and some odd eighty other folks in Austin, have seen the mountaintop and it doesn't look like anyone else will reach it after last night. Every other saxophonist should pack it up now, maybe take up the flute.

The set overall proved that anyone who makes the claim that the Robert Glasper Experiment isn't jazz just isn't paying attention. The elements of the genre are all there. Benjamin uses the vocoder as additional texture, so much so that the best known figure of the vocoder, Roger Troutman, could be described as gimmicky in comparison (lofty claim, I know, but I'll still love "Computer Love" and "More Bounce to the Ounce" no less). After Benjamin's ethereal soloing, Derrick Hodge got his solo chance to shine, making his bass sing and occassionally purr, laying the tones to what would ultimately be a version of Herbie Hancock's "Butterfly" that maintains all the spacey, trippy playfulness the song should typify in the right hands.

Afterwards, the band barrelled headlong into the Black Radio opener, "Lift Off", a surpising selection that is pretty much a grooving intro track to the new album, but works excedingly well live, especially with drummer Mark Hollenberg going off in three extended drum solos. ("Really?" I asked aloud at one slight break in the middle of one of these tremendous solos? Hollenberg continues to destroy faces. "Really," answers a dude at the bar standing behind me.)

The show was outstanding, literally uplifting (Josh Moshier began the set seated at a booth with myself, Nextbop contributor J.D. Swerzenski, and some friends, and as the set stretched on, gradually sat atop the booth, then finally climbed over behind it and stood for the rest of the night), and likely the pinnacle of some folks' South By experience (no matter what Rembert Browne says about seeing Lionel Ritchie and Kanye West in the same night).

I've had a pretty amazing SXSW so far. I've finally seen Punch Brothers live. I've hung out with old friends I can say I haven't seen since the Bush administration. I've walked a four mile stretch through a cemetary at 3am. I've met some pretty weird characters, ensuring the City of Austin's unofficial credo is more than intact. I still have two days left of this, but I don't know how last night isn't the capstone to this whole thing. If Robert Glasper comes to your town, see him. Period. The albums are great. Black Radio is still the best work I've heard so far this year and will likely stay on top in my mind. But oh, my, God, do you need to see this band live. Funny, witty, ebulient, Dilla-esque, perfect. Austin damn near didn't even deserve it.