Some listeners know him as an up-and-coming New York-based jazz pianist but on his third Blue Note CD, 2010’s critically-lauded ‘Double Booked’ Robert Glasper demonstrated his versatility by devoting the second half of the album to exploring state-of-the-art contemporary urban music. Now, in 2012, the genial, laid-back, keyboard maestro is back with his fourth Blue Note long player, an impressive opus called ‘Black Radio,’ which represents his first full-length foray into the realms of R&B and hip-hop.
Intended as a showcase for the keyboard player’s Experiment band, ‘Black Radio’ is a glistening, star-studded affair, featuring substantial contributions from singers Erykah Badu, Lalah Hathaway, Bilal, Ledisi, Musiq Soulchild and Mint Condition’s front man, Stokley Williams, as well as cameos from rappers Mos Def, Lupe Fiasco and Shafiq Husayn. Glasper’s choice of material, too, reflects his wide and eclectic taste; ranging from Mongo Santamaria’s jazz standard ‘Afro Blue’ (beautifully rendered by a superb Glasper arrangement that spotlights the wispy vocals of Erykah Badu) to a lush reading of Sade’s ‘Cherish The Day (with Lalah Hathaway guesting) and jazzy R&B retoolings of rock classics (namely David Bowie’s ‘Letter To Hermione’ and Nirvana’s grunge anthem, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’). It’s unequivocally an album that shows Glasper’s talent in a vastly different light. It might not please diehard jazz fans who were expecting another piano trio record but its accessibility will certainly deliver his music to another – and potentially younger and larger – audience.
Recently, Texas-born Glasper ventured to the UK for a handful of gigs and also to undertake some promotional work in aid of the new album. While he was here he talked at length to SJF’s Charles Waring. Amiable, laidback and laughing a lot, he revealed how a few stiff drinks loosened him up in the studio to get the relaxed vibe he was seeking for ‘Black Radio’…
What’s the background story to ‘Black Radio’?
Basically I wanted to do something that would cross over into the mainstream very well and since jazz has no mainstream appeal really I wanted to change that up and use some of my friends that worked in the mainstream and try to make that bridge happen. To me this record’s not a real jazz record because it has a lot of different elements in it. When you listen to it, it doesn’t scream jazz so it’s just like a bunch of influences on one record. I figured that this was a nice way for me to record with people I love or people I’ve recorded with or have done shows with through the years. It’s something that is crossover and will give the mainstream people some mainstream attention.
Your previous album, ‘Double Booked,’ had a second-half that was similar in style to this new record. Did the success of that prompt you to develop this style even further?
Well, yeah, that’s because my purpose was to do half and half: the first half trio, and the second half with my Experiment band just to give people a glimpse of the Experiment band and then do the next album all Experiment. I just wanted to enter in it gradually – I didn’t want to all of a sudden totally do Experiment.
Your new album has R&B and hip-hop influences. In what way has hip-hop influenced your music?
Oh, it’s influenced me a lot. In the way I approach playing, the changes and playing chords. I play things like a sample and I even loop like a sample. I’ll feel something and all of a sudden just stay there and loop it around and I love that.
When you were growing up, did you listen to both jazz and hip-hop?
Yeah, I listened to a whole lot of stuff because my mother, she was a musician, a singer and piano player. She was into all kinds of music so she passed that on to me.
What would you say to people who don’t get the marriage between jazz and hip-hop? Because some people don’t, do they?
They don’t but that’s fine. You don’t necessarily have to get it but just like what you hear or not like it – just get a chance to hear it. That’s my campaign right now, just trying to be heard and most jazz musicians aren’t heard by the mainstream in anything. You have to be pretty much a jazz head to hear jazz and read about jazz in real jazz magazines.
Have you encountered resistance to your fusion of jazz with R&B by purists?
Not really and not to my face anyway. I’ve never heard it like that ‘cos I think I did it correctly. I think I solidified myself as a jazz pianist first with my records so I don’t get that much flak with that. If I had come out with this kind of album earlier on in my career then I think would have. I think I’ve got respect from musicians and the critics – every year I was ‘Downbeat’s’ pianist of the year or best up-and-coming pianist – so I think I’ve gotten enough credentials to win their trust.
In terms of what you’ve done before, was this album very different in the way that you recorded it in the studio? Did you do any overdubs?
No, I don’t really do overdubs. On my last record (‘Double Booked’) there were no overdubs. I stated it on the liner notes because a lot of stuff sounds like it is over-dubbed. Mostly you hear the music as it was put down (on to tape).
You really capture a vibe don’t you?
Yeah, I try to. I try to do as much as possible to capture a vibe. I try and record mostly at night because that is when you mostly play music. Some people do the total opposite of what they’re used to doing which is why they feel awkward in the studio. People go in there in the morning and record all through the day and their body’s not used to that…or being sober (Laughs heartily).