Arriving at around 9:45 pm to the New Parish to see the Robert Glasper Experiment Friday night, I was greeted by a line stretching to 17th St. and a marquee which announced “sold out.” Although it took about 20 minutes to get in—which unfortunately meant I missed most of opener Kev Choice’s set—that was actually a good thing (apart from missing Choice, that is).

Here’s why: it seems like just a couple of years ago, there was much bemoaning about jazz’s lack of contemporary appeal. The genre was increasingly relegated to well-heeled, older audiences, and its future seemed in doubt. Glasper changed all that with his Grammy-winning album, Black Radio, which resonated with younger listeners without pandering to pop sensibilities. Last time Glasper played the New Parish, in 2012, his show was revelatory, with vocoderized versions of Nirvana and Sade songs wrapped around long improvisational passages aimed at finding, and maintaining, The Groove above all else.

This time, it was more of the same: Glasper seemed less interested in playing individual songs than he was in stretching out and setting a vibe. Which he did. Although he was playing jazz, with the requisite chops which signal a consummate musician, he kept it in pocket and didn’t go above anyone’s head. Rather, he elevated listeners to the plane he was on, and kept them there throughout his entire set.

Glasper seemed to appreciate Oakland, although it may have been hard to tell.

The pianist didn’t say much to the crowd and only occasionally smiled. Most of the time, he glared at the audience with the intense expression of a man firmly ensconced in his own musical universe, occasionally tilting his head back in a Coltrane-esque pose after a particularly-satisfying progression. Sure enough, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Cherish the Day” were both reprised, in typical Glasper style: transformed into nearly-unrecognizable excursions in musicality, with only their refrains offering the audience some degree of familiarity, a lyrical safety net which made the leap into unknown, improvisational territory comforting rather than alienating.

***

I might as well have just camped out at the New Parish, because the next night, I found myself back at the venue once again forJose James, another soon-to-be-legendary jazzman with oodles of appeal to younger audiences. The Panamanian-American vocalist, who hails from Minnesota, burst onto the scene in 2008 with the debut solo album The Dreamer and a featured appearance on Jazzanova’s Of All the Things; since then he’s released three more albums (most recent being 2013’s No Beginning No End, on Blue Note) and quietly amassed a loyal, if not rabid, fanbase, converting nonbelievers with his seductive vocals and exquisite phrasing.

When I posted up at the side of the stage to take some snaps, a group of women told me it was ok, as long as I didn’t ruin their view. “We’ve been waiting a month for this,” they said. James did not disappoint. His set was super soulful and he really engaged with the crowd, oozing charisma without seeming arrogant or aloof.

“Oakland has a real spirit of independence,” James remarked; He fit right in with that spirit. His stage persona is best described as iconoclastic. What other jazzman, I wondered, would cover Freestyle Fellowship’s “Park Bench People,” a somewhat obscure jazz-hop classic from the mid-‘90s?

But James didn’t just cover the song (which examines the lives of homeless people). He caressed it, made it his own, extended its lifespan with a long instrumental section (which included a trumpet solo by Takoya Kuroda, who was on fire all night), followed by an eye-popping a cappella scat session where James chopped and repeated the following verse like a human MPC-3000: “In the park, there’s people walking around looking at theyself like they something, something but they nothing, they frontin’, now the people understand it, all those people something first on the edge of our time and yet they search for drums, imperial dreams, some of these so bored, can’t buy my soul, sell my soul to the devil on another level, never with another rebel on the treble…”

He also paid homage to Bill Withers, with a medley of “Ain’t No Sunshine/Grandma’s Hands,” which brought up a personal moment for him.

And, he honored Marvin Gaye, with a “Mercy Mercy Me/ What’s Happening Brother” medley, and also honored Robert Glasper, who he said helped him to get signed to Blue Note. James also named his stake in the jazz game, saying: “we wanna keep the tradition but keep it moving forward at the same time,” before forging ahead with a dope version of Glasper’s “Vanguard” to which James added lyrics.

James was just as solid on his originals. I only caught the name of one of them, “Do You Feel” –a sumptuous, sexy ballad which made most of the female audience members swoon.

***

James’ opening act was Chinaka Hodge, who, it must be said, is one of the Town’s finest poets and a certified lyrical genius. (Yup, Oakland’s got talent, alright.)

Ms. Chinaka is uber-fierce onstage, her wordsmithery coming from a sacred, magical place of absolute articulation. She was very much on point. Dressed elegantly, in a queenly hat and simple, off-white dress, she could have been coming from an Algonquin Round Table soiree, or perhaps, dinner with foreign dignitaries. Classy, and classic. The only modern thing about her, besides her vernacular, was the smart phone she read her poems from.

Hodge was a vision of taut, precise alliteration, metaphorical resonance, piercing social commentary, and introspective insight. She riffed on being the other woman, Notorious B.I.G., and the unseen strength of so-called “Rachets.” It was quite a performance, one that prompted an audience member who was unfamiliar with her to ask her name. “Chinaka. Not Shaniqua or Shaqueena. Those are fantastic names, but I’m Chinaka,” she deadpanned.

***

Green hip-hop standardbearers Earth Amplified have outdone themselves with their latest video, “Food Fight,” which puts a comedic spin on a gravely serious subject: the battle against processed—and genetically-modified—food. The video’s treatment is utter brilliance, and shows the emptiness of big-budget productions which revolve around substance-free concepts.


“Food Fight” starts with an inner-city kid being sent to the store to get food by his mother. On his way, he passes by some vagrants who pass around a powdered donut like it was crack cocaine. There are slo-mo shots of people eating candy, chips and energy drinks. As the kid enters a corner store—this is the ghetto; there’s no supermarkets—a tv screen shows international food activist Vandana Shiva speaking about multinational food companies. Cut to a scene of the kid looking at shelf after shelf of processed products.

Just then, there is an attempted stick-up; the store clerk reaches behind the counter and grabs a carrot to defend himself, but he is felled by two assailants in suits wielding packages of hot fries like guns. The suits proceed to fill the shelves with more processed food; Apples and tomatoes are replaced by Pop Tarts and ketchup.

Meanwhile, the fast food consumers have become strung-out, nodding like heroin junkies, with cheesy nacho sauce dripping from ears and noses. A soda bottle drinker is felled like a gunshot victim; Another man is strangled with a Red Vine.

The kid is faced with a “Matrix”-esque choice: the “orange carrot pill”or the “Red Bull pill.” Thankfully, he picks the former.

The song’s verses smartly reference classic hip-hop lines from KRS-One, Mobb Deep and Nas, but with a food justice twist: “They shootin’, made you look/ At the labels on the food that you cook/ Just say no to cocoa box/cause when you Google the ingredients you might get got/ Is your milk on drugs cause your brain on Fox?/ Factory farming spawning the Meatrix plot.”

Stic Man of dead prez even shows up as a special guest, adding national credibility to the Oakland-based group.

The video culminates with—you guessed it—a food fight, as Hamburger Helper Man, Toucan Sam, Tony the Tiger and Lucky Charms the leprechaun join the suits and go up against a bunch of rebel holdouts, armed with fruits and vegetables. There is carrot-fu and squash-kata, as the processed food forces are repelled.

This video will probably never see BET or MTV airplay, but it’s already amassed almost 170,000 views in three weeks, plus there’s a free download and school curriculum available here.

It’s nice to see hip-hop used as a platform to educate and inform the youth, and one can only wish more hip-hop artists followed Earth Amplified’s lead and made songs which speak the truth.

***

This week’s picks:
Feelmore 510 Sponsored: Women’s Comedy featuring Eloisa Bravo, Kate Willett, Molly Sokhom, Aurora Simcovich, Veronica Porras, and  Colleen Watson, 3/12, no cover (donation suggested), 8pm-11pm, The Layover, 1517 Franklin St.

Oaktechtalks 3: Innovation and Oakland Street Photography with Eric Arnold (hey that’s me!), Lisa Levine, and Peter Tonningsen, 3/14, 6pm-8pm, $10, Solespace, 1714 Telegraph Ave.

Africa Speaks with Thobs the Zulu Queen, 3/14, 7:30pm-10:30pm, $5-$10 suggested donation, OwlNWood, 45 Grand Ave.

Frankie Paul with Yellow Wall Dub Squad band, Empress Irae Divine and Ione O Angeles, 3/16, 9pm, $10-$20, Sweetfingers, 464 E. 14th St., San Leandro

Bang Data, Candelaria, Dos Four, and DJ Leydis, hosted by MC J. Lately, 3/16, $12-$15, the New Parish, 579 18th St.

Got tips? Send ‘em to eric@oaklandlocal.com

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