At BAM, Questlove’s post-iPod humanism brings brilliant cross-genre ‘shuffling’ to the concert hall

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Questlove at the kit. ()
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In the age of—you can finish this clause already, can’t you?—the iPod’s "shuffle" function, or any of a long list of other tech-aided habits of the music listening mind—we’ve become accustomed to the catholic playlist, or the "no format" mix that proudly jumbles classical movements with hip-hop tracks while making room for everything in between.

This is old news. So, while perusing this week’s concert offerings, you might reasonably ask, what does Questlove want to prove, or to emulate, with the first night of his two-evening residency at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which is titled, straightforwardly enough, "Shuffle Culture"? Any fan of the Roots already knows that the band’s drummer and de facto musical director is keen to make space for the Dirty Projectors and jazz pianist D.D. Jackson on the group’s albums. And sure enough: there’s Jackson again, on the guest list for these shows—along with indie-rockers Deerhoof filling that other genre slot. And the Metropolis Ensemble, a chamber group that helped the Roots play portions of its latest record, undun, on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon," is also on board.

A Roots fan could have entered the Howard Gilman Opera House last night wondering whether this was going to be rehash of recent Roots activity—which could have been pleasurable enough anyway, since the band has been working at such a high level of late. It wasn't. Instead of the deeply considered and synthesized amalgamation of Questlove’s many sonic affections heard on record, Thursday night’s performance revealed a full-on engagement with true randomness and chance. "Shuffle Culture," unlike albums like undun or How I Got Over, isn’t a unified work, and isn’t meant to be. While the parameters of the set list were broadly known to the musicians ahead of time, the exact sequence was, to some degree, left up to random computerized chance. (The elements were mixed "in a way that is at once arbitrary and cohesive," is how the press materials described the process.)

The show was unfailingly true to its concept; and so, like any truly random shuffle playlist, there were some awkward transitions and dead sections when the meant-to-be-dazzling recombination of styles felt rudderless. When Sasha Grey was called upon to recite a William Burroughs piece, backed by the glitchy electronic modulations of Jeremy Ellis, I wanted to hit the "next track" button (and that was before Grey started dancing). But more often than not, the evening was a success.

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Deerhoof’s cover of the Fiery Furnaces song "The End Is Near," which almost veered off the rails due to a guitar-amp malfunction, was more than rescued by some gentle comping from Jackson. Soon after, the pianist got his bravura moment by turning a Scott Joplin rag into an avant-garde pummel session, while Questlove switched between breakbeat rhythms and free playing. The ovation that followed this performance was perhaps eclipsed by the one earned, after intermission, by turntablist-comedian Reggie Watts—but if so, not by much. (It was, however, definitely eclipsed by the audience response to the rousing finale, which featured dueling extended vocal techniques from the beatboxers Rahzel and Kenny Muhammad.)

Still, there wasn’t as much of Questlove’s own drumming as the promotional materials might have led audience members to expect. He was, after all, sharing beat duties with Deerhoof’s drummer, in addition to the rhythm work of Ellis—the latter of whom carried the responsibility for the show’s well-advertised promise to mix aural snippets of Funkadelic and Wagner.

It was often hilarious or satisfying to hear Ellis add a drop of "Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow" here or Danny Brown there. But the best use of his electro-toolkit came in the most fully synthesized sonic moment of the night, not long after Deerhoof’s (very fine) cover of P.J. Harvey’s "Plants and Rags." After Ellis’s transition, Questlove entered, playing an adagio groove underneath the manic mashups. Meantime, a double string quartet pulled from the ranks of the Metropolis Ensemble—whose contributions had been mostly marooned from the other musicians during the night, truly shuffled off to the side—draped some gorgeous pizzicato playing of few simple arpeggios over the top. The arrangement wasn’t overcrowded; everything felt magically in balance—and yet there was a sense of group improvisation at work.

Here, Questlove and company did what not even the most omnivorous listener could do with the shuffle function: they made the different styles talk and react to each other synchronously, rather than merely offer up suggestions of connections to be appreciated as one follows the other asynchronously and linearly. Tech innovations in our at-home entertainment consumption will come and go, surely, but this other skill is distinctly human—not to mention a large part of why we will always need the concert hall experience.