Keyboardist Robert Glasper runs on parallel paths, one in which he’s one of the most celebrated jazz pianists of the last couple of decades, and the other in which he’s an award-winning R&B producer and bandleader. Combining his passions, his Black Radio series with the Robert Glasper Experiment racked up Grammys, and found the Houston native collaborating with singers and rappers from across the musical spectrum, from Lalah Hathaway and Yasiin Bey to H.E.R. and Meshell Ndegeocello. Supporting Black Radio III, Glasper and his three-piece band brought a trio of guest artists with them for his second appearance on the ACL stage, following his 2019 appearance as a member of August Greene.
“Austin, what up?” Glasper announced when he took a place behind his instruments, his sunglasses reflecting his keyboards. “I used to watch this show when I was a kid, so it’s an honor to be here.” After introducing his bandmates – drummer Justin Tyson, bassist Burniss Travis, and DJ Jahi Sundance – the bandleader led the musicians into the atmospheric intro of “Find You,” an organic blend of R&B melodies, jazz harmonies, and shapeshifting polyrhythms from the Experiment album Artscience. “Your feelings cannot be trusted!” declared the samples from Sundance’s turntables. Neither could our ears, with Glasper dropping in verses from Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight,” Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and Buddy Miles’ “Them Changes” over the groove. Glasper plucked another tune from Artscience with “No One Like You,” a lush meditation that gave the drummer some by putting the solo spotlight on Tyson before Glasper’s synthesizer solo got the tune’s pulse racing. Sundance flew in Erykah Badu’s vocal from “Afro Blue” as icing on the cake.
“Me and my brother Derrick Hodge were fortunate enough to score this series Run the World,” explained Glasper. “It finally gave me a chance to work with this person I’ve been meaning to work with forever.” He then brought out singer/songwriter Emily King for the gorgeous ballad “What Love Can Do.” Glasper and King then revisited their Black Radio III collaboration, turning the free-flowing “Invitation” into audience participation during the breakdown. After King left the stage, Glasper noted that, while he came to Austin for jazz camp as a high schooler, he’s from Houston, and while he was in elementary school, he and some friends used to ride their bikes over to the next neighborhood outside of ZZ Top’s house, waiting for them to possibly appear. Cue Sundance bringing out a few bars of the Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man” – a running joke from then on. Apropos of nothing, really, but still a humorous breather before the next tune.
For that, Glasper improvised a fleet-fingered piano intro that led into “Shine,” his collaboration with singer Tiffany Gouche – present as a sampled voice – and rapper D Smoke, who appeared in the flesh. Glasper explained how both the song and the album came to be during the pandemic, scoring a Grammy nomination for Best Engineered Album with music recorded in a homemade, self-built studio in his landlord’s old apartment behind his building. This led into praise for late producer/musician J Dilla, which in turn fed into the band performing a rewritten (on the fly?), energy-filled take on Dilla’s “Wild.” After Smoke quit the stage and the crew brought on a voice modulator, Glasper introduced “my sister” Yebba, who arrived to sing the smoky R&B song “Distance” from her debut album Dawn. Interpolating verses from Natalie Cole‘s “Everlasting Love,” her voice soared into the stratosphere on the wings of her self-manipulated electronic modulations.
That, of course, meant it was time for Yebba’s contribution to Black Radio III. Conceived at a soundcheck, as Glasper explained, the majestic “Over” filled the room with funky grooves and barely-controlled vocal emotion – a feeling that was heightened by the reappearance of King and Smoke, who added harmonies and freestyle rapping, respectively. “Hoping that this love ain’t over” went from hook to mantra, ending the song to wild applause from the crowd. A soulful ending to a soulful show, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs as part of our upcoming Season 49 on your local PBS station.