It’s late January, and at Blue Note records’ Manhattan offices, piano music drifts quietly from behind a closed door. I’m led inside, where 33-year-old Robert Glasper sits at a Yamaha grand, his back to me, taking advantage of the piano and the empty room in order to squeeze in a little practice. (Practice can be a scarce commodity when you’re the father of a 3-year-old, as Glasper is. “He runs and sits on my lap, and he has to play now,” the keyboardist says later of his son, Riley, who makes a cameo on Glasper’s star-laden, pop-oriented new album, Black Radio.)
Glasper is wearing blue jeans, a gray hoodie and a dark knit hat, and is entranced mid-tune. As he grooves his way through a progression of pillowy chords, the melody to “On Green Dolphin Street” pokes out just often enough to be recognizable. He senses he’s being watched, and the spell is broken. “Oh!” he says, startled. He rises from the piano bench, laughing. “Wassup?”
What’s up is Black Radio. The media blitz that will kick in as the Feb. 28 release date nears-profiles in the New York Times, on NPR and elsewhere; guest spots on both The Late Show With David Letterman and The Tonight Show With Jay Leno-is still in the offing. But even a month before the album drops, the buzz-including features in the then-current issues of Ebony and Essence-is building, and will pay off: Black Radio will debut at No. 15 on the Billboard 200 chart, moving 20,854 units in its first week. For a jazz-rooted artist, those numbers are almost unfathomable.
Black Radio and its heavy emphasis on R&B and hip-hop-not to mention its many guest vocalists-is a big departure from previous Glasper albums. That’s not to say Glasper hasn’t worked in genres beyond jazz before. He’s been a sideman to a select array of hip-hop and neo-soul artists, most notably in his gig as musical director for Mos Def. Glasper’s own recordings, too, have included increasing tastes of his outside influences, going back even to his acoustic trio albums-consider the half-minute-long hip-hop interlude on his 2005 Blue Note debut, Canvas; or his backbeat-driven “F.T.B.” and J Dilla tribute “J Dillalude” on 2007’s In My Element. His piano playing has always flaunted a gliding and distinctively soulful touch that begs to be sampled.
Most recently, his quartet the Robert Glasper Experiment spent half of the 2009 project Double Booked stretching stylistic boundaries-and, with saxophonist Casey Benjamin’s vocoder cover of Herbie Hancock’s “Butterfly,” honoring past jazz-plus-R&B fusioneers. (The group’s other two members are drummer Chris “Daddy” Dave, whom Glasper labels “our generation’s Tony Williams,” and electric bassist Derrick Hodge, who recently signed his own deal with Blue Note and shares Glasper’s penchant for genre-jumping; among the many hats Hodge wears is that of musical director for the neo-soul star Maxwell.)
The Experiment’s Black Radio, though, is something different-something that risks rubbing the jazz cognoscenti the wrong way. All those earlier recordings had essentially and unmistakably been jazz, or an electric jazz band reinventing R&B or hip-hop. But Black Radio, despite the loose yet learned improvisational nature that provides its identifiable jazz DNA, is primarily a pop album. It starts off with a pair of vocal covers-Erykah Badu singing the Mongo Santamaria/Oscar Brown Jr. staple “Afro Blue,” followed by Lalah Hathaway covering Sade’s “Cherish the Day”-that serve as omens of what’s to come. Seven originals follow, most involving a guest vocalist adding lyrics to music composed in whole or part by Glasper. Lupe Fiasco and Bilal join the Experiment-Fiasco rapping, Bilal singing a Glasper-penned refrain-on the hip-hop/soul/jazz mashup “Always Shine.” “F.T.B.” gets rechristened “Gonna Be Alright,” with lyrics from the jazz-influenced soul standout Ledisi. Meshell Ndegeocello adds vocals to the strongest instrumental track on the disc, “The Consequences of Jealousy.” Mos Def, now calling himself Yasiin Bey, raps on the title track, which arose from an old joke about how, if the black box is what survives a plane crash, planes themselves should be built entirely of the same material. Two more covers conclude the disc: Bilal’s one-take interpretation of David Bowie’s “Letter to Hermione” and a slowed-down vocoder reassessment of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” with Hathaway adding backing vocals on the latter.
On paper, that might seem like a familiar, cashable game plan. But the success of Black Radio lies in its balance of contemporary appeal and intelligence; to start, the music Glasper and his cohorts craft underneath their guests is worlds smarter and more improvisational than that of the records that surround Black Radio on the Billboard chart. “We’re not trying to just do something that’s too cyclic or that’s in the form of what’s typically played on the radio all the time,” explains Hodge. “We’re trying to be honest to what we like but not dumb anything down for the audience.” Alternately, the musicians hold their considerable chops in check and focus on the songs. “I’m not playing a lot of piano solos,” says Glasper, who flits among acoustic piano, Fender Rhodes electric piano and synthesizer on the album. “I’m just filling in here and there.” Benjamin takes no sax solos whatsoever.
Meshell Ndegeocello calls Black Radio “the most improvisational record I’ve been on in a while,” and doesn’t much care whether it’s “jazz” or not. “He just references so much,” she says of Glasper. “I’m hoping people check this out and give it a few listens and have patience, and really get into the sound and textures of it.”
Among the album’s earliest appreciators is Don Was, who became Blue Note’s president in January after several months as its chief creative officer. “My first day on the gig was Robert coming in to play the record,” he recalls. “I had nothing to do with making it, but he came in to play an unmixed version of it. Look, the only thing I could relate it to at the time is “The Creator Has a Master Plan” by Pharoah Sanders. It had familiar elements, but I’d never heard them all put together in that way.” Was mentions the first times he heard Jimi Hendrix and the Stevie Wonder album Music of My Mind as having been similarly revelatory. Like those earlier breakthrough recordings, Black Radio “was familiar puzzle pieces put together in a shockingly new and seamless way that was captivating and mesmerizing.”
Assembling genre-based puzzle pieces comes naturally to Robert Glasper. His late mother, Kim Yvette, was a well-known singer in Houston who specialized in gospel but also sang R&B, jazz and the blues. Glasper was playing piano in church by age 12, and graduated from Houston’s High School for the Performing Arts before moving to New York to study at the New School. There he befriended classmate Bilal, through whom he began establishing connections to hip-hop and soul artists with a taste for jazz who were looking to move on from looping samples of classic jazz to hiring bands. Eventually Glasper was dividing his time between recording and touring with his piano trio and more pop-oriented work (and connecting, via the latter, with the likeminded instrumentalists who would join him in the Experiment).
The idea of combining those two worlds had been percolating for years; Glasper had told me as much six years earlier in an interview for the Boston Globe, so as we take our seats at Blue Note I read him his old quote back: “I’ve been tempted to do some hip-hop stuff, and some other kind of stuff, too. But you know, I kind of try to wait and when I do it, do it in a good fashion. Because some people do it, it’s wack.”
The quote prompts an outburst of laughter, but Glasper has his reasons why he’s now ready to more fully explore his pop side. “Jazz is my first love,” he says, “and I just really wanted to solidify myself as a jazz pianist and get some records out, stay with that, and then move on to something else, because the media and everybody, they’re quick to peg you as something: ‘Oh, the hip-hop guy.’ They couldn’t wait to do that to me. But now I have a body of work. That was very important to me to do that-especially being a young black pianist. People are so fast to peg me as something other than a jazz pianist.”
Glasper also knows more potential collaborators now than he did then. “Throughout the years of me playing stuff, I’ve become friends and worked with a lot of different artists,” he notes. “So now I have this plethora of artists that I’ve worked with. Back in 2006, I had four.”
Exploring newer, more commercial styles also dovetails with greater exposure, of course, something Glasper wants not only for his own music but for jazz in general. “Yeah, I’m a jazz pianist,” he explains. “But I also like other things, like everyone else. I like chicken and I like beef. It’s not that big of a deal. The point of this record was to bring music to the mainstream people to hear: something they can identify with, and that I identify with. I identify with jazz. I identify with gospel. I identify with soul. I identify with neo-soul. I identify with pop, R&B, rock, pop rock, hard rock-all that. It’s all a part of me. So I don’t want my music to be just a secret for jazz people.”
Glasper is proud of how his earlier work drew listeners from outside jazz’s usual orbit. He brags of club owner Lorraine Gordon coming up to him during a Glasper Trio run at the Village Vanguard and saying, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I’ve never seen this many young black people in here.” And he enjoys it when people approach him at performances and confess things like, “This is our first jazz show. Me and my wife don’t own any jazz CDs, but we love your music.”
Jazz was once the popular music of its day, he notes. Even into the fusion era, he says, Miles Davis was “hanging with Richard Pryor” and the Supremes were coming to Tony Williams’ shows. “We had swag back then,” Glasper says. “Now we’re just known as nerds that no one cares about or something. We’re like this little jazz society.”
He’s hoping Black Radio helps remedy that, even if his experimenting with popular forms-as Davis, Hancock and others did with rock and funk-risks reigniting jazz’s culture wars and getting him labeled a sellout. “I’m just trying to make the music hip again, but not by selling out,” he insists. “I’m not saying, ‘Let me do hip-hop now, or let me do R&B, because I think that’s going to sell records.’ I didn’t pick up the phone and call random people trying to do a hit record. This is family to me. It’s just who I am. Like Herbie had another side. That’s who he was. It’s like, ‘Hey, I did “Maiden Voyage”; I did “One Finger Snap.” I did all that, so now I feel like doing this.’ This is where the times are going, so you don’t want to get left behind.
“I think I’ve already pleased, if you will-or accommodated-the people who are not going to be into this record,” he continues. “I’ve got three or four other records that they probably like. … To be honest, I could care less if jazz musicians buy this record or not, or people who are just jazz heads buy this record. My point is to get other people who don’t listen to the music to check it out, because that’s going to help everybody at some point.”
Of course, jazz people are checking out Black Radio as well. One who loved it right off the bat was Jason Moran. “I remember hearing Double Booked and [getting] stuck listening to ‘Butterfly,'” he writes from Europe the week of Black Radio‘s release. “Immediately afterward I called Robert and congratulated him on accomplishing something that had NEVER been done in the music. He made a true original statement while covering someone else’s composition, and that is quite an achievement. Like Monk playing Ellington, we have Glasper playing Hancock. So once Robert started telling me of the plans he had for Black Radio, I immediately thought that this was going to be the BIG statement. This would be the statement I heard glimpses of in his early recordings. He was ready, and here it is. He has produced a recording that snapshots the current state of who he is as an artist. He snapshots his community, his sound, his family and the creative state of black music. These elements have been evolving for a while. And he is occupying a space in the music that genuinely nods to all forms, and sacrifices nothing in the gene splicing. It’s marvelous to hear, and I know his mother is proud.” (That last statement holds special meaning for Glasper, whose mother, along with her second husband, was murdered in Houston in 2004.)
Mulgrew Miller, Glasper’s favorite pianist and Hodge’s onetime employer, catches the Letterman appearance and phones his congratulations, but later admits the Black Radio material isn’t his cup of tea. “It’s not what I prefer to hear from them,” Miller explains. “But I understand that their reality is a little different from mine. They’re in a different age group, and they came along at a different time. So they’re just dealing with their reality. … It’s not what I prefer to hear Robert do as a piano player, but I respect it. I respect what he’s trying to do, and I certainly respect him and his talent.” (This jibes with something Hodge had said earlier: “Mulgrew Miller, Terence Blanchard, Terell Stafford-all those guys were very supportive of whatever I wanted to pursue or play. They’d say, ‘Respect the history, respect the tradition, learn as much as you can. But be you. What you do with that information, that’s uniquely yours.'”)
Facebook is chockablock with praise for Black Radio in the days surrounding its release. But the timing of a pair of stray comments from jazz musicians-one griping about the desire for money dictating “ignoble” artistic decisions, another decrying musicians for inattention to older music-seem aimed at Glasper and his record. If so, Blue Note’s new president emphatically disagrees. “Our catalogue rivals any catalogue that any record company ever created,” Was says, “but it [is] important to take that Alfred Lion aesthetic and project it forward into modern times. What would he be doing today? Probably not the same thing he was doing in 1960.”
Besides, Blue Note’s beloved glory years were built on hard bop and soul jazz, mixtures of bebop and the popular black music of the day, principally R&B. “If you go to the birth of the Jazz Messengers,” Was points out, “Art Blakey wanted to change the beat around, man. He wanted to throw a backbeat in there now and then. And Horace Silver wanted to play gospel licks, and he’d throw Southern stuff on top of it. It was a radical departure. Doesn’t sound like it now when you listen to it, but I think that was always the case. I asked Herbie. As soon as I got the gig I called Herbie Hancock up, and he said, ‘Remember, those records that you love from that period, these were young, avant-garde guys. And they were pushing the boundaries.’ … I think Robert has come up with one way of embodying the traditional Blue Note aesthetic [while] making it something thoroughly new.”
That newness, Was argues, is no sellout. “If you listen to his playing, it’s not any different than on his other records,” he explains. “Selling out implies compromising your art for the sake of making a buck, and I don’t think Robert’s compromising anything. Listen to the track with Meshell Ndegeocello. Listen to the piano on that. It’s what he does when you go to see him with his trio, an acoustic trio. His playing hasn’t changed. He’s simply surrounded himself with some different textures. Which is what Miles Davis did. Miles didn’t change his playing that much. He just put himself in new territory all the time and played his way out of it. I think Robert’s in the tradition of jazz, to be honest. Being sedentary is selling out.”
Sedentary Glasper is not. The week of the album’s release, he and the Experiment play a pair of sold-out shows at New York’s Highland Ballroom with some of their guest vocalists, then swing through Cambridge, Mass., for two sets at the Regattabar before heading west for SXSW in Austin and their Tonight Show appearance in L.A.
The first Regattabar set, before a nearly full house on a Tuesday night, begins with Casey Benjamin’s vocoder gradually easing into “A Love Supreme” (a bonus Black Radio track available via iTunes), then moves through covers of Roy Ayers’ “A Tear to a Smile” and Herbie Hancock’s “Trust Me” before tackling material from the album. Glasper drives the band hard on his Fender Rhodes as the Ayers tune climaxes, and takes a lyrical acoustic solo on “Trust Me.” Benjamin’s vocoder replaces Musiq Soulchild’s vocal part on “Ah Yeah” and is prominent on the crowd-pleasing set-closer “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but he also takes startlingly strong solos on alto and soprano sax. In the lobby afterward, a young fan dares to suggest that Glasper add more sax solos. Glasper politely disagrees. He’s more interested in bringing new listeners to jazz than in burning sax solos. “Those are the people I’m trying to attract, and they’re a young audience,” he tells the fan. “Now we’re in the T-Pain age. So that’s why I put the vocoder in there, to change it up. I like that stuff too, but I don’t want to just be like any other ‘Here’s my electric band, the saxophone up front.’ So I feel like two songs a set-the sax, if he blows on that, it’s enough for everybody.”
Informed of the Facebook grousing the week before that may have been directed at him, Glasper could care less. “The feedback’s been great, and an innovator only looks back so long,” he replies. Staying in the past, he says, would render him “just like the other five billion piano players who no one cares about.
“I want to play music I like,” he continues. “I want to play music of my generation. I want to play music that actually affects me, which is music that is now. And that’s what I’m doing. And fortunately, when you’re relevant and you’re playing music that’s innovative and now, you get paid. That’s a good thing.”