Making Jazz Cool Again

Monday, March 12, 2012 15:30

An Interview with Robert Glasper

by: Casey Pukl

I think we’ve found our generation’s Miles Davis. Is that a bold statement? You bet. But jazz pianist Robert Glasper has a clear mission— to update the face of jazz and remind listeners what it was all about to begin with. Jazz is about innovation; it’s about being fresh, and according to Glasper, we should all, “make it cool again”— just like Miles did.

Bringing jazz up to speed is Glasper’s mission. His latest release, Black Radio, is a celebration of his hip-hop and soul inspired roots that culminates in a glorious record of collaborations. The record is one of the most buzzed about of 2012, and to date it has reached the #3 slot on iTunes in nine countries  and debuted at #15 on the Billboard Top 200 chart. In a genre where Glasper is repeatedly finding himself in competition with dead musicians, that’s a pretty solid start. Read on to find out more about Glasper’s vision and just why it was so important to make this record at this point in his career.

CP: How did you get your start in music? I know you went to HSPVA, which has a pretty incredible track record for producing some incredible artists. Where did you begin?

RG: Oh boy, back to the beginning, huh? Argh. Let’s see. My mother was a musician and pianist and musician, so music was always in the house. When I was about 12 years old, I really gravitated toward the piano, and then I auditioned for that high school and got in. That’s kind of where I honed my skills if you will. After that, I got my scholarship to New York for college. Things just started taking off from there. 

CP: I’d love to get into a comment you made in an interview a few years back, I think it was around 2005. You started talking about all of the hip-hop influences you had, and at the time, that wasn’t quite as present in your music. Was this album, “Black Radio” kind of your plan all along?

RG: Yeah, exactly. I’m influenced by a lot of things, but when I first came out on Blue Note, I was doing my piano trio introduction as a jazz artist part of things. I tapped into the Robert Glasper jazz side first, and I didn’t really use the hip-hop and soul side. I wanted to do this record when it made sense. I wanted to make sure that people took me seriously as a jazz pianist first. That’s important to me. I know my craft, and that was really important. You know to know the craft first before you go out on your own and have fun with it. I think people take you seriously when you do that— kind of like Herbie in a way. Of course I don’t have his longevity yet, but Herbie can do whatever he wants now because he’s already proven himself; he’s mastered his instrument. I just wanted people to know that I was at that level on my instrument before I got into the hip-hop/soul stuff. I definitely paced it out in a way that made more sense like that. That’s also why I did “Double Booked”. That one gave you half and half before I went full-blown.

CP: Totally. I feel like you’ve been hinting at this for a long time and dropping a lot of clues, but “Black Radio” really brings it all together.

RG: Exactly. 

CP: Do you still practice often?

RG: Not often. I wish (laughs). I don’t find much time to practice these days, but I try when I can. I work so much that I just try to get into the wood shed when I can.

CP: This album is really exciting to me personally because it’s so spacious. You’ve always been good about leaving space, but this album feels so wide open. Did the use of vocalists have a large impact on that for you?

RG: Yeah, I love vocalists. I’m kind of a… what’s the word… I don’t have any patience for bad vocalists if that makes sense (laughs).

CP: That actually makes perfect sense (laughs).

RG: I was never the guy who could play behind vocalists at jam sessions and stuff. If you obviously had no clue what you were doing, I’d just get out from behind the piano (laughs). So I really do love a great vocalist. My mother was an incredible vocalist, so I guess I was really spoiled. But I really wanted to touch the mainstream people who don’t touch jazz. I wanted this to be a record that was jazzy enough for the jazz cats, but also not jazz enough for the people who don’t listen to it at all. Jazz can run people off. Once you start soloing and doing a lot of runs and stuff that people don’t understand, it can run people away. Fortunately, I love to not solo. Me and my band, we love to just stay on the groove and leave things open— we love space. I love not saying too much. To me, space is so beautiful. I didn’t mind not playing a lot. I purposely said when doing this record that I wasn’t going to solo a lot. I wanted to keep it in a format that could reach the mainstream. You might not even realize that a certain song belongs to a jazz record.

Some people might not acknowledge that it even is a jazz record, and that’s fine too. I don’t care what you call it. It’s music, and if you like it, you like it, and if you don’t, don’t! I couldn’t care less about what you call it. I think we did a good job of balancing everything in there.  Even though there aren’t a lot of solos, you can still hear the interaction with the band in a very patient way. That was definitely the master plan on this record.

CP: Plan accomplished! I also thought it was awesome that on the record, “Afro Blue”, which is an old jazz standard, sounded more like a laid back modern hip-hop tune while “Smells Like Teen Spirit” sounded like an older jazz standard. It was such an awesome turn to take. [Videos included below for your own analysis/observation/enjoyment]

RG: That was my thing. I wanted to flip everything on its head but still leave the spirit of the songs intact. You can still hear the song. We changed it just enough that it does it justice, and you still get the spirit of the song.

CP: For this record in particular, did you find that you had to do a lot more arranging and planning just by nature of working with so many vocalists and collaborators? 

RG: Actually, what’s funny about that is no (laughs)! I was literally in the middle of a tour when we did this record because it was just hard to get everybody’s schedules together. We weren’t even sure if some people were even going to be able to do it anymore because nobody’s schedules were lining up. We literally got 4 days in the studio in LA, and luckily, we were able to get like 8 of the artists in those four days. 

Everything in there was so like a jazz recording when we got in there, which is really how I like to record. I don’t really plan very much; I’m very off the cuff. I just like to let the shit happen, and it’s magical. There’s going to be shit that I didn’t know I didn’t plan on. We kind of make arrangements in the studio as we go, and that’s pretty much what it was. All the artists on this album are jazz musicians at heart. They can do that off the cuff type of thing. That’s where the spirit of the magic of this album comes from. It doesn’t feel like it has been rehearsed a hundred times. It feels fresh, and it was fresh for everybody. That’s why I think everyone sounds so fresh because we didn’t play the stuff a billion times before we went into the studio.

CP: That’s really interesting to hear because the record is so incredibly tight.

RG: That just comes from playing with the band I play with. We’re tight. We can just start playing something together and really lock in the groove. That’s how a lot of the record happened. We just started, I had them start rolling, and we’d just go. When you have cats that you play with and you know musically, anything you play together is going to sound like a really cool arrangement. You just get tight.

CP: That’s an incredible point to reach. Major props to you guys.

RG: Thank you. It’s a cool place to be.

CP: What are you most looking forward to about coming to Anthology?

RG: I don’t get to San Diego very much, so I’m just hoping people come on out. I hope the word gets around and people check out the music. Do y’all still do the big screen recording thing?

CP: We sure do. 

RG: That’s cool. It’s a really cool club. I just want people to be in there so they can check us out (laughs)!

CP: (Laughs) Don’t worry— they’ll be there.

Special thanks to Rob for his time! You do not want to miss his show featuring his Robert Glasper Experiment with Bilal. Take a listen to Black Radio on Spotify at the link below, and get your tickets now!

WHAT: The Robert Glasper Experiment ft. Bilal
WHEN: Tuesday, March 20, 2012, 7:30pm
TICKETS: $12-$49 Buy Tickets
MORE INFO: Artist Profile