Review: R+R=NOW

Francis Graham-Dixon enjoys a band of heavyweights, assembled by Robert Glasper and performing at O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire

Fresh from their set at North Sea Jazz Festival, R+R=NOW, the band of heavyweight musicians recently assembled by Robert Glasper (pictured right), touched down in London to a packed house eager to hear their new music, a seamless hybrid of jazz, instrumental hip-hop, neo-soul, electronic and more – but what’s in a label?

The band played together for the first time a year ago in Austin, Texas, with no rehearsal and only a quick sound-check, and immediately gelled, coming up with music on the spot, convincing Glasper that this should be his next album project for Blue Note.

Anticipation was high following their newly released album, Collagically Speaking (see JJ review August 2018). a tour de force, recorded in just four days, which showcases as much the power of the collective as the significant contributions of its six individuals. Each has repeatedly broken new ground as player, composer and producer. They are: Glasper on keyboards, Terrace Martin, currently producing Herbie Hancock’s next album, on synthesiser and vocoder, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah on trumpet, Derrick Hodge on electric bass, Taylor McFerrin on synths, vocals and beat-box and new Robert Glasper Experiment drummer, Justin Tyson.

And so to the band's set, which for the first half was needlessly dragged down by bad sound balance and too high a volume for the acoustics of the hall. And so Butterfly, less light on its wings than Hancock’s original, fell victim to muddy instrumental articulation. Similarly the opener on the new CD, Change Of Tone, despite an expansive trademark Glasper acoustic solo, until the man himself confessed "We have a tragedy up here – we can’t hear s*it". Technicians scurried on and off the stage, the fog lifted, and suddenly there was clarity, not that most of the audience seemed bothered.

Needed You Still showcased Martin’s ability to transform the humble vocoder into an instrument emoting great beauty with his remarkable harmonies, accompanied by sampled voices and a lightness of touch, harnessed by the controlled power of the truly excellent and inventive Tyson on drums. A Hodge fretless solo segued into a high point of the show, the extended swirling jazz rhythms of Resting Warrior, which was at times reminiscent of the hypnotic rhythm and effects on Hancock’s Sextant album. Glasper coaxed a mesmerising marimba groove from his Yamaha Motif, locked down by Tyson whose solo at the end brought gasps from the audience.

McFerrin, eldest son of Bobby, featured in a brief 21st century one-man band spot – vocals, beat-box and synthesiser. Christian Scott’s playing was all the more powerful throughout the evening as an integral part of this collective in its understatement, never more so than on a second extended improvised tune that at times captured the adventure of mid-70s electric Miles in its intensity with space-age electronics. The piece ended with Glasper’s acoustic piano, Hodge and Tyson sharing centre stage.

The band manages to make tricky cues into particular instrumental pairings sound intuitive and effortless while remaining unpredictable. If they could only sort out the sound at the mixing desk at source – I’ve said this before – every live appearance would be a hot ticket.

Photo by Bruce Lindsay

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