Robert Glasper is undoubtedly the man of the moment. The 37-year-old Texas-born pianist and two-times Grammy winner has just released his sixth Blue Note album, ‘Covered.’ He also features heavily, playing keyboards, of course, on Kendrick Lamar’s acclaimed new hip-hop album, ‘To Pimp A Butterfly,’ and is the producer of a soon-to-be-unveiled star-studded Nina Simone tribute album, ‘Nina Revisited,’ due for release via BMG next month. Not content with that, he’s also contributed to the soundtrack to actor/director Don Cheadle’s forthcoming movie Miles Ahead, a cinematic portrait of iconic jazz trumpeter, Miles Davis, during his ‘lost years’ of the mid-to-late 1970s.
Though he started out as a fairly orthodox straight-ahead jazz pianist, Glasper has never liked being pigeonholed and isn’t afraid to experiment. The two Grammy awards that adorn his mantelpiece he won as an R&B artist – he took the Best R&B Album award for his long player ‘Black Radio’ in 2013 and earlier this year grabbed another ‘gong’ alongside collaborators Lalah Hathaway and Malcolm-Jamal Warner in the category of Best Traditional R&B Performance for their potent version of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Jesus Children.’
His latest opus, ‘Covered,’ is different again and finds the affable pianist reconvening his acoustic jazz trio in a live setting in front of an invited audience at Los Angeles’ famous Capitol Studios. His repertoire, though, only includes one standard – ‘Stella By Starlight’ – and instead draws from the worlds of rock and pop. Talking to SJF’s Charles Waring from a hotel room somewhere in Japan, Robert Glasper discusses not only his new album but also other musical projects that he is working on and, perhaps more significantly, talks candidly about the racism and police violence that is impacting African-Americans in the USA today…
Regarding your new album, ‘Covered,’ what made you want to go back to the acoustic piano and the jazz trio format?
I had taken a rest from my trio for about five years so I figured that I wanted to go back because people were asking me asking me about the trio and they missed my piano sound because with the Experiment and the ‘Black Radio’ stuff, I’m not playing a lot of piano when you see a live show. The piano is not at the forefront, it’s mixed in, and people are missing that and sometimes you’ve got to go back and remind people that you play the piano (laughs). I wanted to have a breather and take a break from the ‘Black Radio’ stuff so I figured that this was a nice way to do it: to take a break from ‘Black Radio’ but still keep the music to where people that like ‘Black Radio’ will still like this album as well because there’s a common thread.
What was it like recording live to tape in Capitol Studios? Did you get a sense of history from being in that place?
Yeah, because as soon as you walk in your looking at all the photos on the wall of all the people who recorded there …and I play the same piano that Nat King Cole played.
Who was in the audience?
It was a mixture of some friends of mine and record people and some celebrities as well. It was very low key and wasn’t open to the public.
Tell me about the guys playing with you, bass player, Vincente Archer, and drummer, Damion Reid.
Vincente and Damion were both a part of my original trio. When I first got signed to Blue Note in 2005 both were on my first two trio albums. I love Vincente because I love his sound on the bass and I love how versatile he is because he listens to so many styles of music and he is very versatile which is an important thing in my band. The same thing with Damion. I’ve played with these guys for years and Damion’s a jazz drummer but he doesn’t sound like anyone else and I love people who sound original. So Vincente and Damion both have an original sound and it works because I feel that I have an original sound too and so three original sounds together makes for good and interesting music.
It certainly works. You got some rock covers on there as well some R&B songs. I was interested to find out from you what drew you to Joni Mitchell’s song, ‘Barangrill,’ from her ‘For The Roses’ album.
I love that song…but the funny thing is I’ve liked that song for a very long time. Three nights before I was going to record I was at home and my son was singing the song. He’s six years old. From that, I was like “oh, I’ll put that on my album!” (Laughs). I’ve always loved that song and I’ve always been meaning to do it but I never just got around to doing it so when he sang it sparked something and I said oh, shit, and so I picked up a pen and literally wrote an arrangement right there on the spot.
You also cover the Radiohead song, ‘Reckoner.’ What is it that you like about Radiohead?
Radiohead, they’re dope (laughs) because their songs lend themselves to jazz very easily. That’s because the melodies are pretty sparse: they’re not super-complicated melodies, so it leaves a lot of room for you to do shit, you know. And they do things in odd time signatures and they have really good chord changes and those are great things for jazz musicians: we love different time signatures and chord changes and melodies that don’t have a lot going on because it’s easier to re-harmonise and change things.
You’ve got a guest cameo on the album from veteran singer and political activist, Harry Belafonte on the song ‘Got Over.’ How did that come about?
Harry actually reached out to me to be a part of his organisation that he has called San Kofa, which is basically artists who are active and giving an artist a platform that can speak on social things. Much like his whole life, that’s what he did. And he asked me to be part of that to help him with a project so while I was having a meeting with him about that we became pretty cool. I know I like to document time periods when I do albums and document what’s going on in my life or in the world. And there was a lot going on in the world at that time and now still, so I wanted to document that musically and I felt that it was appropriate and made sense to have Mr Harry Belafonte on the record speaking, basically giving hope to people because a lot of people don’t hear that side of things; they just hear people telling you, stop doing this, stop doing that, but if you hear somebody’s story saying that they came up in horrible conditions as well and that they also made it through, that’s inspiring.
Talking of documenting the times we live in, the final cut on the album, ‘Dying Of Thirst,’ is very relevant to what’s going on in America at the moment in relation to police violence, isn’t it?
Yeah, totally, totally, and you know I used my son, Riley, and his friends for that because when you hear a child’s voice it registers differently to you that when you hear an adult’s voice. It’s very important when I hear all this stuff happening in the world I don’t think about myself – I think about my son all the time and the world that I want him to live in so with all this stuff happening I had my wife choose a bunch of names for Riley and his friends to say, people who were wrongly killed by police violence.
What’s your take on what’s happening in America? Is it becoming a police state?
It’s always been that way. Nothing is different. The only difference is cell phone cameras. Literally, this isn’t anything new, it’s just now. Now you can actually see it for yourself. But the reality is it’s been happening for many years, since the ’50s and ’60s. Malcolm X spoke about that. He said the same thing and he said the Ku Klux Klan turned in their sheets for police uniforms. It’s always been happening and now we have the ability to record things so people can see it because for a long time it was our word against theirs.