Jazz Album of the Week: Robert Glasper's R+R=NOW Responds to Studio Debut with Explosive Follow-Up

Feb 23, 2021

It feels strange calling Robert Glasper’s R+R=NOW a “supergroup” because every group Glasper leads seems worthy of that appellation. Yet, there is something particularly relevant right now about this one, which was named out of Glasper’s desire for the group’s music to be both an accurate reflection of the times and an effective and immediate response to them.

“When you reflect what’s going on in your time and respond to that,” Glasper said in the liner notes of the band’s first album, Colagically Speaking (2018), “you can’t not be relevant. So ‘R’ plus ‘R’ equals ‘NOW.’”

That sentiment was inspired by a quote of Nina Simone’s that Glasper discovered while co-producing Nina Revisited, a companion album to Liz Garbus’ fantastic documentary on the High Priestess of Soul, 2015’s What Happened, Miss Simone. “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned,” Simone says, “is to reflect the times.”
 
Glasper has accepted that mandate from the High Priestess and has run with it, though not in the way you might think. R+R=NOW Live, the second recording from this group of all-stars is not overtly political; their response to this political moment certainly more abstract than one we’d expect from Miss Simone if she were still alive.
 
But the seven-song set, recorded during Glasper’s month-long residency at the Blue Note in October 2018, does accurately reflect the state of the gap between jazz and hip-hop, which Glasper and company continue to close. And this live set does offer musical response. Five of the seven tunes here originated on Colagically Speaking, but while they share the same DNA as their forebears, they’ve evolved and expanded conceptually—to the point where they’re retreads in name only.
 
Case in point is the opener, “Respond,” which presents as both darker and more ethereal here than on the studio recording. Justin Tyson (drums), Philly’s own Derrick Hodge (bass), and Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah (trumpet) again conspire as the primary sound-makers here, but Tyson has dialed back the adrenaline on the snare while the calls of aTunde Adjuah’s trumpet, filtered through distortion, feel far more plaintive, as though being issued into an infinite void.

Meanwhile, “Been on My Mind,” Colagically Speaking’s closer and the second track here, is actually more obedient of gravity’s dictates than its studio-produced doppelgänger. Terrace Martin’s extraterrestrial sounding work on the vocoder notwithstanding, this one’s a pretty standard Glasper-driven R&B slow-jam that might do well on a planet that’s just like Earth except like maybe 25 years behind so that it might feature prominently on that world’s version of the mid-’90s MTV mainstay, The Grind.
 
If your goal here is to find the most dazzling improvisational work from Glasper and let that envelop you in a rocket-fueled pod bound for a place where the concept of time works differently, check out “Change of Tone.” And take note of the incredible work put in by Hodge and Tyson to keep the whole thing anchored while Glasper tinkers with different modes and motifs in a manner that would leave many other competent soloists—and their rhythm sections— in irretrievable interstellar limbo. That Glasper doesn’t burn up upon re-entry, but instead resolves things so seamlessly and humbly, is almost miraculous.

Similarly miraculous is Tyson’s drum work on “Needed You Still.” His beats per minute will raise your beats per minute. The guy’s technical chops are insane; what’s more, it’s all in service to the music. Tyson keeps it steady at supersonic speeds while Taylor McFerrin, the oldest son of recently minted NEA Jazz Master Bobby McFerrin, flies over the top and dazzles on synthesizer.
 
The truth of the matter, though, is that while the foregoing are often spectacular, they’re all appetizers in service of two principal entrees: the fully instrumental take on Kendrick Lamar’s “How Much a Dollar Cost” and the 25-minute version of “Resting Warrior” that serves as closer.
 
Both Glasper and Martin played significant roles in producing Lamar’s celebrated album, To Pimp a Butterfly. From a commercial standpoint, it’s the perfect first single to release from this live album for obvious reasons, but it’s also the perfect front porch for the record because it’s so anthemic. Martin on alto saxophone and aTunde Adjuah on trumpet interlock for heraldic harmonies and separate for solos that soar individually until they encircle each other in the stratosphere high above Glasper’s foundational piano.


 
And then there’s “Resting Warrior,” which at a quarter of an hour is sprawling, symphonic, and cinematic. At times, listeners might sense nods to the great fusionists of the ’70s; textures of both the late Chick Corea’s Return to Forever and early Weather Report are perceptible. And at other times, there’s the unmistakable feel of film noir, where aTunde Adjuah’s distortion infused trumpet soars above the low-lying fog below in a manner reminiscent of some of Terence Blanchard’s best work for Spike Lee or on his Jazz in Film album.
 
A mesmerizing and delirious synth solo from Martin propels this symphony through its third movement, while, ultimately, it’s the battery, the rhythmic bulwarks of Tyson and Hodge, who deservedly get the last licks.


 

Combining jazz, hip-hop, and jam-band sensibilities, this album is sure to win fans from all three categories and maybe alienate a few from those respective groups in the process. But it does reflect a significant graying of the boundaries between the genres and responds with a disdain that they should ever have existed in the first place.

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