Friday night’s Maxwell show was a stunner -- one of the savvier pop productions I’ve ever seen at the Garden, and a strong argument for his recent emergence as an R&B great, an heir to the legacy of Green and Gaye. I think I’ve conveyed my enthusiasm in the official review, but one thing had to be mentioned only in passing: the heavy jazz contingent in his band, and the ways in which it elevated the music.
You may have heard that keyboardist Robert Glasper and drummer Chris Dave are key members of Maxwell’s entourage. So is bassist Derrick Hodge. The horn section includes Keyon Harrold on trumpet and Kenneth Whalum III on tenor saxophone, along with Saunders Sermons on trombone. These are all jazzmen, and their training comes across clearly, even if Maxwell’s production doesn’t leave much room for solos (it doesn’t) and he isn’t remotely a jazz singer (he isn’t).
What am I talking about? This is what I’m talking about:
This clip of “Bad Habits” dates from an earlier point on the tour continuum -- I didn’t want to subject you to shaky smartphone footage -- but still conveys the atmosphere of the band. A skeptic could say that this merely represents a good gig for some overqualified cats. Of course, that skeptic would be an idiot.
Let’s back up a sec. Jazz musicians have been soldiers in the R&B infantry since the beginning. That history runs deep -- a lot deeper than some folks acknowledge. But this current interaction between the two disciplines is something different, distinctly of our time. Soul music today, even the somewhat retro strain embodied by Maxwell, can’t help but reflect the influence of hip-hop: that strong but sinuous approach to rhythm, especially. As it happens, this influence has been filtering into jazz too, through folks like Jamire Williams.
The players in Maxwell’s band are even more deeply involved in that overlap. Glasper and Dave have worked often with Mos Def, along with Q-Tip and others. I’ve seen Harrold and Whalum backing Jay-Z. (That Afrobeat-inflected “Roc Boys” riff is Whalum’s invention.) They aren’t slumming here, not in the slightest.
In that sense Maxwell’s BLACKsummers’night Tour called to mind D’Angelo’s epochal Voodoo Tour of a decade ago. I missed that tour, to my everlasting chagrin, but I’ve heard bootlegs, and spoken with a few of the players. Roy Hargrove, who spearheaded the horn section, was so moved by the experience that it led him to the RH Factor, which merited a JazzTimes cover story in 2003. (The piece now reads a bit dated, particularly with respect to neo-soul and conscious hip-hop. But that’s what we were feeling at the time.)
I imagine ?uestlove, the musical director of the Voodoo Tour, would take issue with my comparison. (Apparently he was at the Garden on Friday night, so I’d trust his dissent. Not that I wouldn’t otherwise.) But let me clarify something: musically I don’t think Maxwell (in this moment) and D’Angelo (in his prime) are/were really after the same thing, and I don’t think their bands are/were, either. The looseness and otherworldly haze of Voodoo is a far cry from the crispness and in-the-room presence of BLACKsummers’night. And Maxwell isn’t nearly as natural a sexbomb as D’Angelo (again, in his prime).
Take Friday’s concert, which began with a simmering vamp, and a trim silhouette against a screen. Maxwell emerged to sing “Sumthin
Sumthin,” against an airtight arrangement. Then came “Get To Know Ya,” and a
horn breakdown that smoothly segued into “Cold.” At this point I jotted
something in my notebook about how musical details for Maxwell are the
equivalent of custom tailoring. (He did look good in that suit.)
My analogy stood up during the next song, “Lifetime,” which included the set’s only proper Glasper solo. Later there was a soulful trombone prelude to “Help Somebody,” and a muted trumpet solo on “Fortunate,” with Harrold planted at the foot of the stage. And throughout the set, there was the deep, elastic pull of the rhythm section, so smartly anchored by Hodge and Dave. There was jazz throughout the performance, but the only “jazz” (note the distinction) came in furtive flashes, as on the boppish horn digression in this clip of “Pretty Wings,” at 4:00 (though you should watch the whole thing).
Credit the likes of Glasper for the sly grace of moments like these. And credit Maxwell for his receptivity and his respect. The closing moments of his Madison Square Garden show involved the full band at front and center, passing a microphone down the line. Each musician said his name and hometown, and each got a cheer from the crowd.