Meet Robert Glasper

Blue Note hasn’t signed a new jazz artist in years. But something about this young pianist from Houston made the suits’ ties twirl.

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Robert Glasper
By Clay Patrick McBride

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It's Saturday afternoon in Brooklyn, and pianist Robert Glasper is recording what will eventually be the third track of Canvas, his second CD and his Blue Note debut. Outside, the sun blazes in a cloudless sky, hotter than usual for mid-May; inside Systems Two Studios, the climate, like the vibe, is decidedly cool. In the booth, engineer Joe Marciano adjusts some levels while producer Eli Wolf leans back in a chair. Both are gazing intermittently through the control-room window at Glasper's trio, which shifts into the final chorus of "Portrait of an Angel" with the easy grace of a late-spring breeze.

Glasper and his trio-mates, bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Damion Reid, are making good time today; they've already wrapped a couple of songs, each in a single take. But "Portrait" ran six minutes, a touch on the long side. So Glasper and Reid start into it again-but with a preposterous go-go beat that has the men behind the glass exchanging looks. ("They're kidding," Wolf assures Marciano.) The band cracks up, but only after riding out the stunt for a minute. Then Glasper tosses his dreadlocks with mock flamboyance, rolls his shoulders like a boxer and starts a solo-piano introduction. At the first downbeat, he's all business, bolt upright at the keys.

This time the gentle waltz clocks in at 5:24, and the musicians step into the booth for playback. "It's our Charlie Brown tune," Glasper quips as the melody comes wafting through the speakers. While his bandmates tilt their heads intently, he dances and sways, cracking more jokes. If Glasper feels the pressure of cutting his Blue Note Records debut, he's determined not to show it. If you didn't know better, you'd think he was the most relaxed person in the room.

Glasper, 27, is no neophyte. He has served time in the bands of Mark Whitfield, Russell Malone and Christian McBride, and worked in a lesser capacity with many others. For the past few years, he's been ubiquitous on New York's low-rent club scene, at musicians' hangs like Smalls, the Jazz Gallery and the Up Over Jazz Cafe. He's also familiar to hardcore devotees of organic R&B and hip-hop, thanks to affiliations with the rappers Mos Def and Q-Tip and, especially, the silky crooner Bilal. And last winter, when Carly Simon staged a holiday concert at the Apollo, Glasper was a member of the top-shelf band. "Everyone I've spoken to, musicians and people that just know about jazz, know about Glasper," marvels Bruce Lundvall, Blue Note's President and CEO. "It's amazing what an impact he's had on the musical community in such a short period of time."

Still, Glasper's Blue Note contract has boosted his stature in the jazz world by an order of magnitude. He's the first new jazz artist signed to the label in five years; the last two were pianists Jason Moran and Bill Charlap, who both came aboard before the multiplatinum juggernaut of Norah Jones. (The label's post-Norah releases have included lateral moves by Wynton Marsalis and Terence Blanchard as well as crossover ventures by the soul-pop icons Al Green, Van Morrison and Anita Baker.)

With Canvas, which was released on October 4, Glasper joins an impeccable roster, both modern and historic. The Blue Note imprimatur also bumps Glasper to another level in a practical sense; he starts the month of November with his first engagement at the hallowed Village Vanguard and will later go on tour, landing at least a few lucrative festival gigs. (Glasper, who remembers Jones from high-school summer jazz camp, jokes that Thanks, Norah should have been the name of his album.)

On the Blue Note side, too, there's a palpable sense of excitement. Lundvall, who tends to favor the long view, speaks earnestly about Glasper's connection to the label's progressive traditions, and his future growth as an artist. Wolf is more direct in his praise. "I really think it is so vital," he says of Canvas. "It really is speaking something to what's new and possible in jazz, much like Jason Moran and Brad Mehldau and a handful of others are. Robert is on the cusp of being able to do that as well."

One week after Systems Two, I meet Glasper at the Brooklyn Moon Cafe on Fulton Street, a 15-minute walk from his Fort Greene apartment. He arrives a fashionable half-hour late. Perhaps less fashionably, he's sporting the same silkscreen T-shirt he was wearing the previous weekend. Claiming a window table, he orders a fried-chicken platter and obligingly reflects upon Canvas.

"I try to bring the live aspect of playing to the studio," he says. "If you have the mindset that you're in the studio, you're going to sound like you're in the studio. You're not going to reach for things, and everything's going to be pretty and neat, all the corners tucked. I want everybody in the band to not be afraid to try something, even though the tape is rolling. At the end of the day, if you reach for something and it didn't come out good, take another one." But then he takes care to note that, on the first day of recording, "five out of six songs were first takes." The second day was slightly more complicated because of the addition of Mark Turner on tenor saxophone and Bilal on vocals.

Glasper's blend of spontaneity and discipline does find powerful expression on Canvas. It's a bracingly contemporary album, at once buoyed and anchored by collaborative energies. Certainly there's a clear focus on Glasper's deeply confident piano playing-the bluesy yet exploratory cadence, the percussive articulation, the ringing sonorities-but the album's centerpiece is really the coalescent chemistry of a trio. Reid's drumming is stormy and inventive, and his rhythmic sensibility has a slippery essence; together, he and his trio-mates treat time like a liquid property. This gives Archer room to make his bass playing not only foundational but also contrapuntal; he often digs into Glasper's improv phraseology and extracts a key point, to which he incisively responds.

Asked to explain the trio's cohesion, Glasper points simply to a common open-mindedness. "Vicente listens to everything, literally. Then you go to Damion's crib one day, and he's listening to Stravinsky. We all have a really broad spectrum. We're always talking about some other shit. And groove is second nature to all of us. We don't have to try to groove, it's just there." It's worth noting that this was also true of other incarnations of the trio: Before Archer, bass duties fell to Brandon Owens, and on occasion there have been solid substitute drummers. But no other grouping under Glasper's supervision has matched the current lineup for collective creativity. "Some people have even gone so far as to say we're the new Ahmad Jamal Trio," Glasper notes, "because they grooved so hard." He doesn't seem displeased by this comparison. In fact, he annotates it: "It's almost like the Ahmad Jamal Trio with up-to-date music."

Glasper knows from groove. Growing up in Houston, Texas, he played the organ in his church. His mother, a well-loved singer named Kim Yvette, imparted her love of gospel, Motown and R&B; that's her voice you hear belting the blues at the start of "Remember," the valedictory tune on Canvas. One of Yvette's frequent accompanists, a pianist named Alan Mosely, was Glasper's earliest mentor. "He showed me my first jazz piece," Glasper recalls, "so I could get into the High School for the Performing [and Visual] Arts. It was 'Spider Man.' He taught me how to do it in a jazz way-like, a minor blues with the walking bass in my left hand. I played that and a church song at the audition."

Although accepted to HSPVA as a freshman, Glasper deferred to play basketball at a public high school. "I found out I wasn't too good at basketball," he dryly recalls. "So in my 10th-grade year I went to this arts school, and that's where I met a lot of the cats." His jazz combo consisted of the saxophonist Walter Smith, guitarist Mike Moreno, bassist Mark Kelly and drummer Kendrick Scott-all of whom are now active on the scene. Another classmate was Beyonce Knowles, then on the verge of stardom with the R&B dynamo Destiny's Child.

Glasper landed full scholarships from the Berklee College of Music and the New School, and chose to attend the latter. At orientation on the first day, he met Bilal Oliver, a jazz-vocal major from Philadelphia. They soon became best friends, working together on the singer's demo. The resulting material landed Bilal a deal with Interscope in his sophomore year, whereupon he promptly dropped out of school; the demo tracks make up a portion of 1st Born Second, his 2001 debut. Glasper's association with Bilal would lead to work with Q-Tip and Mos Def, and the very real possibility of a career in hip-hop.

But the pianist was determined to make his way in jazz. "I used to spend the night at Smalls," he remembers. "Go to jam sessions, spend the night, eat breakfast and go to school." He got his first gig from guitarist Mark Whitfield, who had taken note of the pianist during a clinic in Houston. (Whitfield's Raw, a soundboard recording released by Transparent Music, marks Glasper's first appearance on CD.) Subsequent gigs followed-enough that Glasper failed a few classes for poor attendance. On occasion, he sought counsel from Jason Moran, another pianist who'd moved to New York with a diploma from HSPVA; when Glasper arrived in New York, the ink on Moran's Blue Note Records contract was just recently dry.

Glasper recorded his first album, Mood (Fresh Sound New Talent), at Systems Two in May of 2002, with Reid on drums and the redoubtable Robert Hurst on bass. The album opens with a version of Herbie Hancock's "Maiden Voyage" featuring Bilal's haunting falsetto moan; other guests included Moreno and the saxophonists John Ellis and Marcus Strickland. But again, the album had a trio at its core, and with luminous results. Through Glasper's manager, the CD ended up in the hands of Wolf, who had heard just a taste of the keyboardist's playing on Bounce, Terence Blanchard's Blue Note debut. Wolf says, "What happened was I listened to Mood-and then I listened to Mood over and over again. Hands down, it became my favorite jazz record of the year. I couldn't get it out of my player. There was something really progressive going on there, in a sublime sense."

Wolf caught Glasper at the Jazz Gallery and then brought Lundvall and others to hear him at the Blue Note club in July 2004. They occupied a table at the back of the room, discreet but unmistakable in their intentions. Glasper and his trio, with Owens on bass, played a respectable set, peaking with the blazing "Jelly's Da Beener" and a subsequent, soulful "Enoch's Meditation." Soon after the gig, Glasper got approval to cut a five-song demo for the label, on a trial basis. When I heard the resulting half-dozen tracks at the Blue Note offices early this year, they seemed more than solid-release-worthy, even. But they were just a hint of what Glasper and crew would eventually record.

What's missing from Canvas is an explicit hip-hop allusion. There are plenty of subtle traces-in the trio's rhythmic pliancy, and its commitment to groove-but no backbeats, no rapping, no samples or electronics. Bilal's guest appearances, on "Chant" and "Remember," amount to coloristic gestures; his parts are more instrumental than vocal. Turner, playing on "Canvas" and Hancock's "Riot," brilliantly heeds a modern jazz call.

"I keep those worlds separate," Glasper says firmly of jazz and hip-hop, "because they are two separate things. I love playing jazz-piano trio-that's my shit, I love that. Every time I play something, I want to be authentic in it. I don't want to sound like I'm playing at jazz, or playing at hip-hop. You put me on a country gig, I'll play that shit, and you will be convinced that I play country. I try to be like a chameleon. Or like Bruce Lee says, be like water. Whatever you come to, you take that shape."

At times, he does take the shape of a straightforward groove player. The Experiment is an electric collective he formed with fellow HSPVA alum Chris Dave, the drummer for Meshell Ndegeocello and others. "It started in Houston," Glasper explains. "When I would go home, me and Chris would get together and do a show. He would get Meshell to come down; I'd get Bilal. Beyonce came through once and sat in with us. It became a big thing, twice a year." This past summer, the group played on an almost weekly basis in New York; one September night at Sweet Rhythm, a frontline of guitarist Lionel Loueke and alto saxophonist Casey Benjamin dialogued over a seductive vamp that was deeply African yet decidedly modern.

Glasper's occasional roommate in Brooklyn is Brian Michael Cox, who penned and produced Usher's monster hits "Burn" and "Confessions" as well as parts of Mariah Carey's latest CD. "Sometimes I hook up with Brian and play on some tracks that he's doing for somebody," Glasper says. "I've played on some things that nobody knows. I get a little check. And at the very bottom you might see my name. I have another name, though."

He won't divulge this hip-hop pseudonym, not even to the folks at Blue Note. But he does hold out the possibility of a future project: "Like, hip-hop meets jazz, and then jazz trio, and some MCs. I'm in that world too, so I know so many people-and they're all down. I think I'd be the first one to really bring those two worlds together. I think I could do it." One gets the sense that Blue Note would happily oblige.

For now, though, Glasper's primary focus is the acoustic piano trio, and he's working hard to build on past traditions. As predecessors, he offers the trios of Oscar Peterson, Wynton Kelly and Keith Jarrett-and confides that Alive (GRP), by the Chick Corea Akoustic Band, was a formative touchstone. But he reserves his highest praise for Mulgrew Miller-"my favorite piano player alive," and the inspiration for a tune that didn't quite make the cut on Canvas, called "One for 'Grew."

By all accounts, Glasper is well on his way. After leaving the Brooklyn Moon Cafe, I head back to Manhattan, where Mulgrew Miller just happens to be playing at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola with the Joe Lovano Quartet. During a set break, I corner Miller and solicit his opinion of Glasper. "He has that most precious of jazz characteristics," the pianist says without hesitation. "He has an imagination. And he has an abundance of it. That is the thing that I like most about his playing. And he has wonderful command of the instrument, to be able to execute all of his fantastic ideas. I think it's very possible that he will really be one of the great ones."

Listening Pleasures

Pete Rock, Soul Survivor (RCA). "Killin' MC with killin' beats."

Slum Village, Fantastic, Vol. 2 (Goodvibe). "Nasty drums, with melodic chord changes."

Kim Burrel, Try Me Again (Shanachie). "One of the most amazing vocalists of our time-killin' band. H-town!"

Sam Rivers, The Complete Blue Note Sessions (Mosaic). "Good tunes, good band, killin' Herbie Hancock!"

Radiohead, Amnesiac (Capitol). "Very creative, nice mood."

Originally published in November 2005

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