Performances by the Robert Glasper Experiment always stagger along a fine line between the indulgent and the ecstatic, never much caring whether the one spills over into the other. That was certainly the case during the quartet's 2½-hour show at World Cafe Live on Tuesday, which often felt more like a house party than a jazz concert.
Not that Glasper, especially at the helm of the Experiment, can fully be defined by the term jazz anymore. On his most recent release, Covered, he returned to his roots with an acoustic jazz trio album, but that followed his two immensely popular Black Radio albums, which epitomized crossover success by favoring hip-hop and soul over jazz, with songs featuring a host of guest stars, including Erykah Badu, Common, Snoop Dogg, and Norah Jones.
Glasper allowed himself a bit of backhanded boasting about that success ("Have we been here since we won our last Grammy?") before taking his seat at the keyboards. Before the band played a note, he launched into 10 minutes of banter with the crowd about Philadelphians' inability to agree on the city's best cheesesteak and telling an awful pirate joke (to a hearty round of boos).
When the music finally did get under way, Glasper's mischievous streak never fully disappeared. Where other jazz keyboardists quote melodies from other tunes during solos, Glasper allows them to hijack a piece entirely. A soulful rendition of Musiq Soulchild's "So Beautiful" was thus transformed into a taunting cover of Drake's "Hotline Bling," while Common's "The Light" morphed into a rousing "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
Glasper later showed off some awkward mic skills, though consensus seemed to suggest he should stick to the keys. Which he did gorgeously at times, including a tempo-jumbling solo rendition of Radiohead's "Everything in Its Right Place" and a thrilling duel with drummer Mark Colenburg, whose ability to embellish and mutate his deep-pocket grooves was a highlight of the night.
Most of the show's vocals were handled by the Experiment's Casey Benjamin, whose vocoder-distorted reads of Sade's "Cherish the Day" and Bill Withers' "Lovely Day" were brought further into sci-fi territory with laser-blast effects from his synths. Neo-soul singer and Philly native Bilal eventually dropped in to share the stage with his old friend Glasper for a soaring version of his own "Reminisce," targeted with an Inspector Gadget crack from the bandleader for sporting a trench coat.