Robert Glasper is a devotee of J Dilla, so it’s appropriate to say that with the recording of Black Radio 2—his sequel to the critically acclaimed predecessor—the “stakes is high.” As the pianist/composer embarks on his latest jaunt across America with his Experiment band (bassist Derrick Hodge, saxophonist/vocoderist Casey Benjamin and drummer Mark Colenburg) many are wondering if he can deliver again.
Black Radio featured multi-genre vocal exhibitionists like Lupe Fiasco, Bilal, Meshell Ndegéocello, and others, stretching preconceived notions of contemporary jazz into an unsalvageable outreach. The effort earned them all a well-deserved Grammy for Best R&B Album last year. Even more adventurous than that album were their live shows, where The Experiment expanded its audience with a futuristic fusion of hip-hop, alternative rock, and a feverish, insatiable emphasis on improvisation.
Black Radio 2 (released this week) is a tighter, more focused effort than the original, featuring more polished arrangements and prominent guest vocalists including Faith Evans, Norah Jones and Snoop Lion. The New York album release performance—a bill including BR2 guests Common and Marsha Ambrosuis—combined the best of both projects’ approaches.
Times Square’s Best Buy Theater was a significant upgrade from Manhattan’s more intimate Highline Ballroom, the sight of the BR1 album release concert back in February 2012. To warm things up, the Roots’ drummer Questlove stepped from behind his drum kit to man a turntable, headphones and a MacBook Air to become DJ Questlove. Known for his incomprehensible music knowledge, the fellow Dilla worshipper treated guests to an hour’s worth of can-you-name-this-Dilla-sample, playing snippets of songs ranging from Stan Getz and Don Blackman to The Jackson 5 and Ringo Starr. “I’m playing the role of the boring preacher before the choir,” Thompson said.
Soon enough, The Experiment emerged with much fanfare. Glasper, rocking a white tuxedo jacket, black skullcap and sunglasses, greeted fans with his now notorious sense of humor, taking digs at his Miami Vice-inspired attire. All kidding aside, the quartet went to work with BR2’s sensuous opener, “Baby Tonight.” Casey Benjamin, the Experiment’s cyborg-voiced front man, possessed a simplistic charisma, in particularly on their funky, deceptively ambitious cover of Daft Punk’s runaway hit, “Get Lucky.” Derrick Hodge and Mark Colenburg were so locked into each other’s groove, it was hard to tell where Hodge’s bottom stopped and Colenburg’s kick drum began.
Special guest singer Eric Roberson ended The Experiment’s set with the BR2 bonus track, “Big Girl Body”—a cautionary tale of a girl with a mature physique and an immature mind. A spacey sax solo from Benjamin only fueled the already palpable inferno.
Immediately following Roberson’s departure came Marsha Ambrosius. The caramel-skinned, ex-Floetry songstress started her set with her BR2 contribution, the torch song “Trust.” Glasper’s grand piano chords seeped within Ambrosius’s fluttering soprano, proving she can sing about heartache and longing as good as anyone in soul music today.
Following a gritty reimaging of Sade’s “Love Is Stronger Than Pride” and a crowd-pleasing Michael Jackson medley meshing “Butterflies” and “I Can’t Help It,” The Experiment briefly exited the stage, leaving Ambrosius alone with DJ Active playing tracks from her debut and forthcoming solo projects. She ended her portion with her best-known creation, Floetry’s classic ballad, “Say Yes” (co-written by Hodge), while accompanied by Glasper. Ambrosius’s high-pitched twists and turns were nothing short of breathtaking.
As quickly as she left the stage, Common entered with The Experiment in tow, sans his signature beard, but with his incomparable energy. The Chicago-bred MC put the crowd into a frenzy with his uplifting anthems of empowerment, upheaval and education, which blended like a glove with Glasper and co.’s driving transcriptions of beats like “Geto Heaven” and “I Used To Love H.E.R.” On the latter, he urged the audience to keep the essence of what made hip-hop pure and effecting, underlining his point with quick spurts of rap classics like LL Cool J’s “I Need Love” and the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy.”
Common capped off the night with “I Stand Alone,” his featured track on BR2, which is one of Glasper’s most damning, memorable piano melodies. Finally, just like on the album, Dr. Michael Eric Dyson closed things out with an oratory on the importance of Black music’s continuing evolution and its affect on the society responsible for it. It’s safe to say that Glasper is doing his part to fulfill that promise, not only honoring tenants of the past, but forcing all around him to look ahead without fear.
Matthew Allen is a Brooklyn-based broadcast professional and music journalist whose work can be found in The Village Voice, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. Follow Allen on Twitter @headphoneaddict, and visit his music blog, The Well-Dressed Headphone Addict.