Robert Glasper – Breaking Cover

Robert Glasper

Robert Glasper’s recent double Grammy Award wins for his two Black Radio albums have capped an 11-year career that has not just seen him break through to the mainstream like few other jazz artists today, but has also seen Glasper forge deep bonds between today’s jazz, R&B and hip-hop scenes. Back with his original rhythm section of bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Damion Reid for his new album Covered, this simmering piano trio joins the dots between Radiohead, Joni Mitchell, hip-hopper du jour Kendrick Lamar, and jazz standard ‘Stella By Starlight’. John Murph reports...

As Robert Glasper dines at the Smoke Joint, a gentrified soul-food restaurant in Fort Greene, Brooklyn on a humid mid-May Sunday afternoon, a young man spots him then casually approaches. “Yesterday, you met my daughter Ella,” the transient gentleman says before exchanging pleasantries about music and life in Brooklyn.

Glasper – the noted 37-year-old jazz pianist with serious hip-hop and R&B bona fides thanks to his critically and commercially acclaimed Black Radio discs – welcomes the impromptu conversation as if he’s known the guy for years. Whereas some other easily recognisable artists would have probably cut the chatter rudely short, Glasper quickly establishes an inviting rapport.

“That’s the vibe,” Glasper says after the man departs. “The average jazz musician doesn’t have that. I really get people coming up to me and say, ‘Oh my God, you’re Robert Glasper!’ and just start talking. It’s cool to have that.”

Glasper’s flair for connecting with people paired with his incredible musicianship has served him well. During his shows, he brings an iconic stage presence that engages on an intellectual and emotional level; more importantly he puts jazz newcomers at ease. His comedic asides are just as well known as his impressionistic improvisations and his catholic taste in music, which embraces as much pop, R&B, gospel and hip-hop as it does the wide spectrum of jazz.

While Glasper – dressed casually in all black – gives the passerby the momentary sense that he has all the time in the world to shoot the breeze, the two-time Grammy Award winner is gearing up for another busy and productive year. The next day, he’s mastering a Nina Simone tribute album for RCA in conjunction with Liz Garbus’ Netflix documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone? At the request of RCA Records, the companion disc will take on similar characteristics as Glasper’s Black Radio projects by having a litany of special guest vocalists that include Gregory Porter, Mary J. Blige, Lauryn Hill, Usher and Jazmine Sullivan – all of whom were selected prior to Glasper’s involvement.

This week’s itinerary also includes Glasper completing a Miles Davis remix project for Sony Music. Glasper had already contributed to the soundtrack to Don Cheadle’s upcoming Miles biopic, Miles Ahead, before the label approached him about the idea. Glasper leapt at the opportunity but he didn’t want to do a rote jazz remix album. “They’re kind of boring,” Glasper explains. “You kind of chop up a part, put a beat to it, and that’s it.”

Sony Music gave Glasper access to the Miles recording vaults, which contains some multi-tracking of tunes. This enabled Glasper to reach higher; he recreated new songs, showcasing his Rhodes piano playing and a rotating cast of special guests, which includes Erykah Badu, Hiatus Kaiyote and John Scofield.

If those two endeavours aren’t enough, Glasper is touring. His travels this year have included spots in Japan, Spain, Germany and the UK; also on the list is a special engagement at Los Angeles’ Playboy Jazz Festival, where he will play with the Blue Note Records’ all-star band, Our Point of View. During the band’s stay in LA, he and Don Was, Blue Note Records’ president, plan to record an album. The tour also allows Glasper to support Covered, his newest Blue Note release, on which he returns to the piano trio format and reunites with drummer Damion Reid and bassist Vicente Archer, who played on Glasper’s first two Blue Note dates – Canvas (2005) and In My Element (2007).

On Covered Glasper refurbishes such modern popular tunes as John Legend’s sanguine ‘Good Morning’, Jhené Aiko’s angst-ridden ‘The Worst’ and Radiohead’s foreboding ‘Reckoner’. Those songs as well as the others culminate as the perfect segue away from Glasper’s two previous Black Radio discs with the Experiment. Glasper quickly notes the artistic decision was indeed strategic. “I had to think about how I was going to make a trio record that wasn’t going to completely neglect the audience that I’ve acquired from those mainstream R&B and hip-hop records,” he explains.

Making smart decisions has characterised Glasper’s career since he dropped his debut disc, Mood (Fresh Talent) in 2002. After that release, he made sure that the following discs would be on a major label so he signed with Blue Note Records. Even then, producer Eli Wolf had ideas about Glasper recording with some of his R&B and hip-hop contemporaries. But Glasper wisely thought how he would pace his career and the timing of such projects. “I decided to wait two or three albums so that I could first get the respect as a jazz pianist,” Glasper explains. “As a black man, critics are quick to put me in the hip-hop/piano category. And if that would be the case, I probably would have never gotten the respect for being a jazz pianist.”

 

“Most jazz musicians have their heads in the clouds thinking, ‘Oh, what do I feel like playing today?’ They don’t think about shit, but then they gripe.”
– Robert Glasper

 

“It’s a business at the end of the day. Your career is your business,” he continues. “Most jazz musicians have their heads in the clouds thinking, ‘Oh, what do I feel like playing today?’ They don’t think about shit, but then they gripe.”

Glasper hopes that Covered will introduce acoustic jazz to his Experiment fans. That’s why the disc also features a stunning reading of Victor Washington’s classic ‘Stella By Starlight’. After Glasper’s orchestral solo introduction of the composition’s melody, the rhythm section underscores Glasper’s melodic improvisations with an undertow that implies rap music’s boom-bap rhythmic bounce. The rendition deftly articulates Glasper’s mastery at hip-hop in that he often concentrates on the feel of the genre instead of trying desperately to mimic its sound. “‘Stella By Starlight’ has been played a fucking hundred million times. I don’t understand how people can record standards, just play them in a standard fashion then expect people to get excited,” Glasper laughs, “you got to do something to that shit.”

After concentrating five years on the Experiment, which earned Glasper two Grammys and catapulted him to the stratosphere of pop stardom, he began longing for the trio and the opportunity to focus on playing the acoustic piano. “All my jazz fans missed the trio, and so do I,” Glasper says. “I’d been away from the piano too long; I needed to get back to playing for real.”

That’s not to suggest that Glasper views the music he created with the Experiment as fluff. But playing with the trio forces him to utilise his virtuosic skills more because he’s the main voice throughout. “There’s no hiding behind anything,” Glasper explains. “There’s no stopping and having a drink and watching the other cats play – that’s something I could do with the Experiment. With the Experiment, there are so many areas in the show where I’m not playing at all.”

Before Glasper recorded Covered, he realised that he needed to brush up on his piano chops; so in late fall of 2014, his manager arranged a few trio gigs in New York City, Chicago and other major jazz cities to woodshed and rekindle his musical accord with Reid and Archer. “They were kicking my butt,” Glasper says about those early gigs. When time to record arrived in December, Glasper – inspired in part by the making of Cannonball Adderley’s 1966 hit LP, Mercy, Mercy, Mercy!: Live at ‘The Club’ – decided to do it live in front of studio audience at Capitol Records in Los Angeles. “Just in case we weren’t totally ready, I would have the option of recording more,” Glasper laughs. “We put couches and a bar in the studio. We made the atmosphere sort of loose to make it seem like a little nightclub.”

“I didn’t really notice anything that has changed regarding his technical abilities,” Archer says about Glasper’s piano playing during the trio’s reunion. “The way he approaches the piano is different from what it was 10 years ago. Still, I didn’t see any hesitation in his playing at all. He’s a wonderful player.”

Archer argues that while the trio’s incredible bond prevailed, its chemistry has changed slightly because each member has gained experience playing with other musicians, and, they’re all more mature. “All of our individual sounds are more defined. We make better musical choices and know what to play and what not to play.”

The main difference Reid notices, however, is the emphasis on pop tunes rather than originals. “Now that we’re doing covers, there’s more thought about being careful and respectful to the compositions. That has brought a different concept to how we play together,” Reid explains. “On [Covered], we’re only doing two of his pieces – ‘I Don’t Even Care’ and ‘In Case You Forgot’. I personally like playing his originals more because I think that’s when we’re more open and more reactionary. We have this impulsive thing with the original music because we’re playing new melodies and chord changes; it stimulates different kinds of chain reactions.”

Like Archer, though, Reid believes that the trio’s hiatus and the individuals’ experiences playing with other musicians have enriched their chemistry for the better. “Now we’re more expressive and much more about listening to each other,” Reid says.

When Glasper talks about reconnecting with his trio mates, he praises both Archer and Reid for their singular musical voices and faculties at creating meaningful musical dialogue. “Damion is a special drummer; I don’t know any drummer who sounds like him,” Glasper says. “We have such a weird connection because we don’t feel rhythm in a metronome kind of way; it’s more circular. Sometimes, it feels like he’s playing free but then ‘Boom!’ the one is always there. I had to get used to that way again. When Damion and I are floating in the clouds, Vicente knows when to go out and when to be an anchor so that everything makes sense in a really dope way. Another good thing is that everybody in the trio really digs hip-hop. So when it’s time to do that shit, we’re on it.”

Speaking of hip-hop, soon after Glasper finished recording Covered, he got an invite from jazz saxophonist and hip-hop producer Terrace Martin to contribute to rapper Kendrick Lamar’s new disc, To Pimp a Butterfly. Glasper – a huge fan of Lamar’s 2012 disc, Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City – sprung into action. Originally, the pianist was slated to play only on one song, ‘For Free’, a blistering indictment against America powered by a “balls-to-the wall” post-bop excursion. “I went from my jazz session where I didn’t do any hard swinging to the Kendrick Lamar session, where the first thing I did was that song, which is swinging like a motherfucker,” Glasper laughs.

Lamar was in the studio too and after hearing Glasper’s gutsy piano accompaniment, the rapper asked if he would play on some of the other songs. So with the help of electric bassist Thundercat showing him the melodies and chord changes, Glasper lent his improvisational wizardry to eight cuts on the critically acclaimed To Pimp a Butterfly – an album that Glasper tweeted as “one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time”.

“People jumped on me after I said that,” Glasper recalls. “People were like, ‘You’re speaking too soon. You can’t say that; you have to give it time – like 10 years.’ There is such a thing called an ‘instant classic.’ We didn’t give A Tribe Called Quest 10 years before claiming that Midnight Marauders was a classic album or Common’s Like Water for Chocolate or D’Angelo’s Voodoo. You don’t need 10 years to call them classics. You just need good ears and know what the fuck you’re talking about.”

Interestingly enough, one of most poignant moments on Covered occurs during the trio’s misty-eyed rendition of Lamar’s ‘Sing to Me, I’m Dying of Thirst’. On the original, Lamar unravels a harrowing tale in which the protagonist is set on revenge after witnessing one of his friends get killed through gun violence. Because of his bleak circumstances, the protagonist confides to the listener that he too could become another fatality to the street’s vindictive wars. “There are so many ways you can peel that orange,” Glasper says about the song. “‘Dying of thirst’ can mean so many different things. In that song, Kendrick says that you need to be baptised in the water because you need love and God’s help. That’s where America is. It could be so many things.”

 

“When it comes to thinking about the police now, I’m always thinking about my son.” 
– Robert Glasper

 

On Covered, Glasper reprises the cascading melody on ‘I’m Dying of Thirst’ while Reid and Archer underscore it with a samba feel that’s as supple as it is sombre. But instead of featuring a rapper to deliver the song’s ominous theme, it features Glasper’s six-year-old son, Riley, and a few of his friends give a roll call of various young slain victims – many of which have made global headline news – at the hands of police brutality. The children’s unsettling cameo helps give Covered a deeper emotional gravity as it encompasses the #blacklivesmatter movement, which has swept over the United States. “When you hear kids’ voices saying that they are Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Oscar Grant and so on, it makes you think in a different way. It’s like, ‘Yeah, you’re right. They’re kids’.”

“Becoming a father has totally made me think differently to things than if I wasn’t a father,” Glasper continues. “When you’re a father, you become, ‘OK, I don’t want my son being this kid lying dead on the concrete. What can I do? I got to do something’. It hits you in a different way. I’m never thinking about myself when it comes to interacting with the police. But when it comes to thinking about the police now, I’m always thinking about my son.”

In addition to wanting to create an acoustic jazz album that speaks to its socio-political times, Glasper didn’t want his high profile to go to waste. He argues that as a black jazz musician, he’s one of the few who has a large-scale platform, a voice to which young listeners pay close attention. “There aren’t that many black people in jazz who have that platform. I can count on one hand those who have the young people’s ears in jazz – it’s probably me and Esperanza Spalding on the big scale,” Glasper says. “Then you also have people like Christian Scott and Jason Moran. It’s maybe one or two more people of our generation that already have the ear of the young people on a large scale. I’m not talking about being just a great musician; I’m talking about having the young generation’s ears, in which they respect your opinions.

“I can tell people what I ate today on Facebook and I get about 500 likes,” Glasper laughs as he finishes his plate of barbeque ribs. “So why not change that popularity into something else and try to make a difference with the platform that I have?”

The Robert Glasper Trio's Covered (Blue Note) is out now. Visit Blue Note for more information.

This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of Jazzwise. Subscribe to Jazzwise.

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