Despite snowstorms arcing across the eastern half of the States threatening to strand festivalgoers, industry folk, and musicians alike, the music portion of SXSW 2017 got off to about as active a start as the festival has led us to expect in its recent years. Stereogum is taking over the Mazda Studio At Empire Garage properly tonight and tomorrow with our official showcases (alongside other day and night parties from our friends at SPIN and Vibe), but last night there was a prelude in the form of Heard’s 7th Annual Music + Tech Mashup, a sort of transition night between SXSW’s Interactive and Music weeks.
The Mazda Studio is actually taking place in both corners of Empire—the outdoor stage of the Garage and the indoor club atmosphere of the Control Room. Over the course of the night, artists like Open Mike Eagle, Techno Self, and Cut Chemist took the stage inside the Control Room, while the Garage hosted a lineup featuring sets by Circling Drones, Tameca Jones, Maggie Koerner, and Jacob Banks before Robert Glasper’s late-night, all-star headlining set.
You can find just about any kind of music at the all-you-can-eat free-for-all SXSW has grown into, but even so: it’s less common that you’ll walk into a random bar or venue and see a jazz set rather than a buzzy DIY group, an indie stalwart, or a rap superstar. Glasper’s set was a convincing argument that more contemporary jazz artists need this kind of spotlight alongside the artists we’re more used to seeing on mainstream festival lineups. Aided by trumpet player Christian Scott, Terrace Martin on sax, and Bilal on a few guest spots, Glasper presided over a set that blended genres.
Things kicked off straightforwardly enough, as Glasper cued the band to start on a song that they “think Miles wrote but we aren’t sure.” But even when they nodded to their forebears, like on a Herbie Hancock cover later in the set, these guys spent the night making the argument for a contemporary vision of jazz unchained to strict adherence to tradition or retro-leaning trends. Hip-hop beats and synths mingled with trumpet solos, Bilal (who’d previously collaborated with Glasper on 2012’s Black Radio, an album with a genre-pushing mission statement that laid the groundwork for shows like last night’s) crooned over wiry neo-soul fusion instrumentals. It makes sense—I saw Scott join Thom Yorke onstage for “The Eraser” once and Martin is perhaps best known for his involvement in Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. Glasper’s crew last night was an assembly of some of the most accomplished and biggest young names in jazz, but they’re also part of an interconnected community of musicians dedicated to challenging listeners and pioneering within a genre that’s often in danger of becoming entirely academic.
In the wake of La La Land’s success last year, there was some talk about how the movie’s vision of contemporary jazz was way out of touch with the innovations actually occurring within the tradition. Aside from being an excellent and more unique way to kick off a week at SXSW, Glasper’s set was also a refreshing reminder within the context of that conversation: this was music where the main rules were about pushing through the borders, and seeing the genre’s younger stars continue to forge ahead into new territory is a stunning live experience.