The Robert Glasper Experiment @ The Institute, Digbeth

robert glasper

The vibes at The Institute on Thursday night were as cool as the soft, blue colours that gently lit the main room. I walked in to the fresh, jazzy sounds of Mercury Prize nominee Soweto Kinch. He was a more than adequate starting act, and after displaying his reputable talents as a saxophonist, he then revealed his skills as both a written lyricist and freestyle emcee. Kinch’s slot was capped off with a jaw-dropping display of lyrical skill, in which he set himself an acrostic challenge of incorporating words that spelled D-I-G-B-E-T-H into improvised verses (the words having been shouted out by random members of the audience). From due diligence to hunger, Soweto Kinch surpassed the challenge with ease, to a hearty and well-deserved applause.

Shortly after, The Robert Glasper Experiment took to the stage, and as soon as they did, Glasper charmingly suspended all elements of pretence with a simple “Hello, how you doing?” For the most part, I truly did not know what to expect from their live performance. Prior to the gig I was mostly familiar with the group’s collaborative works (including features from Erykah Badu, Emeli Sande, and Yasiin Bey/Mos Def, to name a very select few) but huge crowd favourites such as ‘Ah Yeah’ and ‘Let It Ride’ proved to be just as powerful without their respective vocalists, and for many songs this was somewhat of a blessing in disguise, shifting the focus towards the band’s ability to play off of each other and improvise, which is essential of any show associated with jazz.

What was refreshing about the band was that, despite Glasper being their namesake, there was no true frontman of the group. Equal attention was given to Casey Benjamin (vocoder and saxophone), Mark Colenburg (drums), and Travis Burgess (bass, presumably filling in for Derrick Hodge) as well as Robert Glasper himself. In fact, the term solo was taken quite literally during the show, with other band members often leaving the stage to lend the spotlight to their fellow band members, whose showcases of instrumental skill did not disappoint. Even the vocals were at a casual volume that blended with the other instruments. However, this often meant that Benjamin’s words were drowned out by the drums, particularly during Colenburg’s heavier jams. At times this was a little bit frustrating, and I felt that perhaps the synthesised vocals that gave the Black Radio albums (Black Radio 2 in particular) such a unique touch simply could not be done justice by a live performance – or maybe the levels just needed a bit of tweaking. Either way, for the songs with more recognisable lyrics, nothing was lost in translation, as the strong crowd helped to raise the volume for The Robert Glasper Experiment’s well-known renditions of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, and ‘Lovely Day’. The latter which performance entailed Benjamin’s light vocals making the perfect match for Glasper’s gentle piano chords.

Covers were certainly expected due to the aforementioned Nirvana and Bill Withers numbers, but that knowledge didn’t prepare me for their sensational performances of ‘No Church In the Wild’, and a shorter, but more polished version of Radiohead’s ‘Everything In Its Right Place’, which somehow seamlessly transitioned into a slow and emotive version of ‘Get Lucky’ (don’t ask how, but believe me, it really did).

Just when we thought the music couldn’t get any better, guest vocals from a Birmingham-born female singer added a beautiful, organic tone to their smooth, Neo soul sound, and in the closing few numbers, Glasper spoke the immortal words, “Soweto, where you at? Come spit some raps”. Mr Kinch graced the stage once again with his saxophone talents and more freestyle finesse, and the way he thrived off the musical environment around him was a genuine treat to watch.

All in all, it was a fantastic performance from an incredibly tight and talented band, and the at-times smothered vocals in no way detracted from what the gig was truly about: good, soulful music. 

by Oliver Clifford

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