176 Keys: SFJAZZ Fest Presents Hiromi and Robert Glasper at the Herbst Theatre



Hiromi and Robert Glasper are two of the most exciting pianists on the scene — and they’re pulling jazz in almost entirely different directions. Glasper often tows a line between jazz and hip-hop, having acted as the music director for many of Mos Def’s live-band shows. And Hiromi is a confluence of a prodigious skill set and a knack for breaking rules.

The Robert Glasper Experiment opened the show Saturday night. Glasper played a Rhodes and a piano, sometimes both at once. But there was another keyboard on stage: Multi-instrumentalist Casey Benjamin, who backed up Q-Tip at last summer’s Outside Lands festival, piped his voice through a keytar/vocoder setup for the latter half of the set.

Vocoder performances included a take on Stevie Wonder’s “Superwoman (Where Were You when I Needed You)” and “Fall in Love,” by late-great producer J-Dilla, a song that Glasper covered on the “J Dillalude” (In My Element, 2007).

The Dilla sound is a frequent influence on Glasper’s work, and the sound is manifested than more than chords and melodies. Producer Dilla is often credited with using late snare hits, which drummer Chris Dave revels in. Of course, Dave takes things even further: He drops the beat when you least expect it; he finds counter and half-time rhythms and indulges them just long enough to make you slip sideways, uncomfortably, in your seat, before picking up the original beat and resuming course.

Bassist Derrick Hodge contributed “Open Mind,” from Glasper’s recent LP, Double-Booked. He opened the song with a series of Baroque riffs, double- and triple-fretting his bass. And the song itself was almost fugal in its call-and-response dynamic between the keys and vocoder. While the Robert Glasper Experiment was an incredible band to see working together, the “pianism” aspect of the show, that is, Glasper, could have been given more room to play.

Following up an electric four-piece with a solo piano concert may sound like a difficult task. But Ahmad Jamal-protégé Hiromi knows how to handle a crowd.

Hiromi plays solo piano with the carefree abandon of a pupil whose deathly-strict instructor has called in sick: While playing, she rocks on her tip toes, stands up, swings her left foot like she’s sitting on a pier; she groans, hums, and snaps at the keys like unruly children; she smiles at the audience, she gazes at the ceiling, she stares at her lap — sometimes she looks at the keyboard.

Hiromi opened the show with Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.” It was unrecognizable at first, but with a wink and a nod, she threw in a couple blue notes, letting the audience in on her joke. Then she ran all over Gershwin, burning tread, zipping up all 88 keys — then unzipping them — running laps around the melody, hamming it up a hundred different ways. Hiromi plays with superhuman speed, like she’s possessed by the piano — maybe the piano is playing her — maybe someone should pull her away before she collapses.

Hiromi’s original work can be just as frenetic. “BQE,” off her latest LP, Place To Be, takes its name from the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. Sheets of notes are abruptly unfurled — starting and stopping like rush-hour traffic — before a slow, choral, descending, melody emerged atop the chaotic rhythm. It’s a car gliding over potholes; it’s the traffic sounds of Gershwin’s “American in Paris” being chopped up in a food processor.

While the teacher’s away, Hiromi throws a block on top of the piano’s upper register strings and starts playing Pachelbel’s “Canon.” The blocked strings produce a harpsichord-type sound, so that she is playing a two-voice duet on one instrument. She has so much fun it makes you wish you practiced your instrument more — it must take a lot of work to blend irreverence and professionalism so well.