Friday, December 14, 2012

In the key of Wonder: Robert Glasper at Harlem Stage Gatehouse

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Robert Glasper

From a nightclub table at the edge of Harlem Stage Gatehouse stage, I had a revealing angle on Robert Glasper. The pianist, bent to his work, simply presented to my gaze one ear, the side of his neck, the whimsical watch cap stretched out behind his head. Facing a far corner of the stage, remaining in that humble, vulnerable position, Glasper flowed through a rippling, ringing solo he later called "I Wonder." With its layers of meditative and bluesy "voices," less driven than the sturdier, determined work of his ensemble--The Robert Glasper Experiment--and his guest performers, the solo expressed a wandering kind of wondering that eventually wends its way to clarity and serenity.

Commissioned by Harlem Stage's WaterWorks series, Robert Glasper: Songs in the Key of Life features the Grammy-nominated pianist's take on the legacy of Stevie Wonder--another artist with a profoundly expansive, eclectic musical toolbox--and it's a thoughtful show for folks who love Wonder but don't necessarily need to hear upbeat hits signed, sealed, delivered. Glasper's choices--and his guest collaborators--are quirky, soulful and sometimes soul-stirring.

Fervent r&b vocalist Eric Roberson serves as caller to the unified ensemble's ready, chugging response in the surprising opener, "Misstra Know It All," before Glasper and the band almost imperceptibly ease it into a  lilting jazz fantasia. Stokley (of the St. Paul, MN band Mint Condition) is all over "You've Got It Bad, Girl"--a song I appreciate far more for its silky instrumentation than its obnoxious lyrics--and "Rocket Love," strongly evoking not only the wonderful Wonder but Al Jarreau at the height of his powers. Lalah Hathaway's mocha voice deftly lifts "Overjoyed" beyond treacly pleading, and she makes you sit up and take notice--all you "Jesus Children of America"--that your bullshit ain't gonna cut it. But nevermind all that. Cool Mama Hathaway, with a big assist from Glasper and the band, ends up rocking us into a holy state of all-rightness. No matter where we're coming from, no matter what's going down now, it's going to be all right.

Check out Glasper's journey through Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit"--you can do that here--and you'll feel a similar sense of moving through darkness, with increasing strength and determination, to something all-embracing and reassuring. That's where Glasper--the unifier, the healer, the dedicated Knight of Cups--likes his music to take us.

The Robert Glasper Experiment includes Casey Benjamin (saxophone/keys/vocoder), Mark Colenburg (drums), Derrick Hodge (bass) with guest performers Ahmir ?uestlove Thompson (drumsThursday only), Gregoire Maret (harmonica), Mike Moreno (guitar) and Yuki Hirano (synthesizer).

Robert Glasper: Songs in the Key of Life concludes this evening with two more 75-minute performances (7:30 and 10pm). With seating limited, nightclub-style, both shows have long sold out, but check for last-minute cancellations. For information on these shows and tonight's pre-performance discussion with Glasper (6:30pm) and after-party at Ginny's Supper Club, click here.

Follow Harlem Stage's programming here.

Harlem Stage Gatehouse
150 Convent Avenue (at 135th Street), Manhattan
(map/directions)

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