Robert Glasper’s last Toronto show (fall, 2012) was one for the books. Midway through his performance Glasper and his band were hustled off the stage to allow for another group that the venue had scheduled to perform at the same time. Outrageously unprofessional – and just plain crazy.
A few months later, Glasper took to the Grammy stage to receive his 2012 Best R&B Album Award. Returning this year to Toronto for the TD Toronto Jazz Festival, there was no question of being shooed off the stage this time around.
“Now we have a Grammy, we don’t stand for that shit” said Glasper, reveling in the sweet redemption of it all. “This is my Grammy stretch,” he added with a satisfied grin.
The crowd was passionate about Glasper – fans who had attended that notorious show shouted “Welcome back! Welcome back!” as soon as the band stepped on stage at the Horseshoe Tavern. Some arrived early to stake out territory right up front. Three young women dressed in American Apparel gear sat on stools at the edge of the stage with a bouquet of flowers resting where Glasper would later play, and they light-heartedly joked with me that they realized they looked like “fan girls.” Two skinny young men with long hair and concert tees (looking more rock concert attendees than jazz) sat on the stage, Black Radio CD in hand. It was the youngest and most culturally eclectic crowd I had seen the entire week, transforming the perception of who is listening to jazz. Even the mid-fifties North Carolina gentleman beside me remarked that he found it fantastic and inspiring to be in a jazz concert that was not completely filled with 60-year-olds.
Ten minutes into the show we discovered why the crowd is as excitedly – and refreshingly – diverse as it is. “We’re going to play some real deep shit, so I want you all to pay attention,” instructed Glasper before tinkering around with the folk song “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” The band then took the crowd through an unpredictable musical journey, from hip-hop to pop to rock. Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild” segued into Sade’s “Cherish the day,” and later, Daft Punk’s “Get lucky,” which sounded like the robots singing Pharrell Williams’s lyrics (it would make a fantastic remake on its own) slithered into Donald Byrd’s “Think Twice.”
Casey Benjamin, a fabulous mix of George Clinton and D’Angelo, who Glasper jokingly called “Walking Thunder,” for all intents and purposes shared the spotlight with Glasper. His distorted spacey vocals (thanks to his vocoder), paired thrillingly with his solos on keyboard, sax and clarinet, showcased his versatile talent front and center. The novelty of his distorted voice did lose some of its unpredictability mid-show but after a lengthy time without it, while the band jammed, its re-emergence, for a nearly unrecognizable rendition of “Smells like Teen Spirit,” was electrifying. At times you had to remind yourself that it was Glasper’s show – Glasper clearly enjoys the collective elements of music – but his re-emergence back into these Benjamin solos were always perfectly timed and exhilarating.
The pair also made a fascinating contrast. Glasper, in a black t-shirt, cap, and jeans, and a towering physique didn’t take himself too seriously. He often stood up to watch the other guys jam, casually wiped sweat off with his towel (a fresh pile of towels was soon brought for him and the band), refilled drinks and appeared to be mulling over a hundred different ideas, thoughts, and possibilities all at once. On the other hand Benjamin looked ultra-stylish in a fuchsia sleeveless t-shirt that highlighted the fuchsia roped into his hair, and the silver tip of his long dark beard. And when not playing he simply closed his eyes and pleasingly zenned-out.
After an encore chant, the band re-emerged. Glasper good-humouredly went from Mark Colenburg’s drums to Benjamin’s keyboard, feigning an attempt to play, which amused the band and the chuckling audience. “You’re such a tease,” screamed a woman beside me until Glasper finally acknowledged her. A hilarious medley of songs followed, from the Cheers TV show theme song to Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” and Rod Stewart‘s “Have I Told You Lately” – which he seemed to playfully direct to his bass player Derrick Hodge. (Hodge good-naturedly gave him a “You’re so sweet,” flutter of his eyes); the band then played one more tune and called it a night.
The medley’s diversity spotlighted Glasper’s wild versatility, even in jest. It’s as if a hundred different musical possibilities co-exist in him at once. This is why the crowd clearly adores him – and the fact that he hangs out with fans after the show. It is also the number one reason his music is breaking new ground.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Chaka V. is a writer, journalist and the creator of The Winehouse Mag.