A Pianocentric Week
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
School’s out for the summer, which means the late sets at the Village Vanguard are no longer crammed with youngsters from NYU, New School, and SUNY taking advantage of the student discount. (Since when did I get to be the oldest guy in the club?) But for the 27-year-old pianist Robert Glasper, this week’s run at the Vanguard represents a graduation of sorts.
Throughout his early 20s, Mr. Glasper built his reputation as a sideman with Roy Hargrove, Terence Blanchard, and Wallace Roney. In 2004, he recorded his first album as a leader for the Spanish label Fresh Sounds, and last fall he released the excellent “Canvas” (Blue Note), his first CD on an American label. His Vanguard runs last November and this week mark Mr. Glasper’s emergence as a star in his own right.
Mr. Glasper’s first-rate trio, which includes bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Damion Reid, keeps finding new things to do with the piano-bassdrums format. At one point during Wednesday’s late set, Mr. Archer soloed on the bass while Mr. Reid accompanied him with his bass drum, matching the tone to make it sound even deeper. Mr. Glasper’s also has a unique way of alternating phrases with the other two musicians; other bands will sometimes trade fours in the last chorus, but the Glasper trio makes these exchanges part of the central melody.
On “Canvas,” Mr. Glasper plays with a lyricism reminiscent of Bill Evans and a percussive, Afrocentric feel influenced by Randy Weston and other Thelonious Monk disciples. On Wednesday, however, he reminded me of Bud Powell, in that he played the heaviest, most baroque bebop phrases imaginable, dispensing knotty, modernistic, European chords over equally thick African rhythm patterns.
His first tune, “G and B,” combined two familiar phrases, one reminiscent of Chick Corea’s “Spain” and the other suggesting “The Kerry Dancers,” the traditional Irish song famously quoted by Charlie Parker. It seemed that Mr. Glasper was commenting on the African roots of both Iberian and Gaelic music. Both “G and B” and the second tune, “Of Dreams To Come” were laid out in similar patterns: The trio alternated dense phrases, four or so bars each, with wide-open spaces in which the bass and drums would go it alone. It wasn’t that Mr. Glasper needed to rest – he has the chops to keep going indefinitely – but the pauses gave audience members a welcome chance to breathe.
The bulk of the set, however, was a 20-minute collage that combined Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” and a tune by the rock band Radiohead. At least that’s what Mr. Glasper said afterward. I wouldn’t expect to recognize the Radiohead, but I know “Maiden Voyage” by heart, and still I couldn’t recognize it.
In any case, the combined piece was both meditative and folkish. It traveled from very quiet to very loud, tumultuous to contemplative, wide open to thick, with chords on top of chords on top of chords. This was the only part of the set that could be called conventionally “pretty.”
Mr. Glasper is the first young, boporiented instrumentalist to be signed to a major label for many a season. He’s found an appropriate home at Blue Note Records, which already works with Bill Charlap and Jason Moran, the two most imposing young piano stylists on the contemporary scene. Mr. Glasper is not as cuttingedge as Mr. Moran nor as old-school as Mr. Charlap, but his gigs at the Vanguard made clear that he’s well on his way to developing a sound and style of his own.
If you’re a piano fiend, Memorial Day weekend is no time to leave the city. In addition to Mr. Glasper, three excellent pianists are performing around town: Mr. Charlap, Charles Cochran, and Roger Kellaway.
Mr. Charlap is presenting an almost perversely wonderful set at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola. A big part of the fun of Mr. Charlap’s music usually consists of hearing him reinvent the crown jewels of the Great American Songbook. However, during Wednesday’s early set, he played obscure works by major composers such as Horace Silver (“Summer in Central Park”), George Shearing (“Enchanted”), and Harry Warren (“There Is No Music,” a song cut from “The Barkleys of Broadway”). He also played Gershwin’s “Liza” as a feature for drummer Kenny Washington, and Johnny Carisi’s minor 12-bar blues “Israel,” which he made sound bluer than ever.
Mr. Cochran, who has traveled up from Florida for a month of weekends at Danny’s Skylight Room, might be the slowest pianist around. He commenced Monday night’s set with a molasses-like version of the normally peppy “On the Other Side of the Tracks,” then moved to what he called a “slow-dance” treatment of “Dancing on a Dime.” But it wasn’t until he played Jerome Kern’s “In Love in Vain,” essayed in the slowest tempo imaginable, that he really came alive. On these crawling numbers, in which he barely moves, Mr. Cochran makes you feel like you suddenly have all the time in the world.
Mr. Kellaway is an underappreciated player if ever there was one. A keyboardist with marvelous rhythm and even more marvelous harmonies, he will be making a rare appearance at the Jazz Standard this weekend. His quartet teams two veterans (him and bassist Jay Leonhart) with two young upstarts (guitarist Russell Malone and vibraphonist Stefon Harris). Chops will be no doubt flying all over the place.
Not all the pianocentric jazz news this week was good. On Wednesday, a report came out of New Orleans that the outstanding New York-based Latin jazz and bebop specialist Hilton Ruiz was found unconscious in an alley off Bourbon Street with his face punched in. He is being treated at East Jefferson General Hospital and is officially listed as being in critical condition.
Glasper until May 28 (178 Seventh Avenue South, between Perry and 10th Streets, 212-255-4037). Charlap until May 28 (Broadway at 60th Street, fifth floor, 212-258-9595). Cochran will perform again on May 28 & 29 (346-348 W. 46th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues, 212-265-8130). Kellaway until May 28 (116 E. 27th Street, between Park and Lexington, 212-576-2232).