Chad Batka for The New York Times
Chrisette Michele singing with Robert Glasper at the Blue Note.
February 24, 2012
The Corner of Jazz and Hip-Hop
By NATE CHINEN
A FEW tracks into “Black Radio,” Robert Glasper Experiment’s hazily soulful new album, there comes an accidental manifesto, culled from studio banter among the members of the band. “People think of jazz musicians, they pigeonhole us,” this collage begins, before moving on to complaints about the coarsening of musical standards, the sway of industry “bigwigs” and the dull complacency of popular taste. It’s a pretty sour train of thought until this closing conviction: “The best thing you can do for people, I think, is just be honest, man.” (And a grace note: “Yo, we’ve got to do something, man.”)
“Black Radio,” due out on Tuesday, is the fourth Blue Note release by Robert Glasper, a pianist who has spent the last decade or so building on a dual firmament of acoustic jazz, and artisanal hip-hop and R&B. It’s the album he has been hinting at for years: an earnest confab with some of the artists in his network, like the politically minded rappers Lupe Fiasco and Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) and the vibe-oriented singers Erykah Badu, Meshell Ndegeocello, Musiq Soulchild and Chrisette Michele. Strikingly, given that each of its 12 tracks features at least one guest vocalist, the album unfolds as a coherent statement rather than an all-star mishmash: Robert Glasper and friends, not Robert Glasper and Friends.
Just as strikingly, “Black Radio” is the rare album of its kind that doesn’t feel strained by compromise or plagued by problems of translation. It convincingly mirrors the texture and mood of contemporary black bohemia, largely because Mr. Glasper and his band — the bassist Derrick Hodge, the drummer Chris Dave and the saxophonist Casey Benjamin — are an integral part of that scene, with sideman credits that include not only the album’s guest roster but also the likes of Maxwell, whose most recent arena tour had the Experiment’s rhythm section at its core.
“There’s been a lot of attempts at fusing jazz and hip-hop,” said Don Was, the veteran record producer recently appointed president of Blue Note. “Many times you see the Scotch tape holding the two things together. And I think Robert’s done it seamlessly. Because that’s who he is.”
Mr. Glasper, 33, has a strong but slouchy build and the garrulous, unselfconscious air of a guy accustomed to putting others at ease. Born and raised in Houston, he grew up playing in church and attended the same arts-intensive high school that has produced so many serious young jazz musicians, like Jason Moran, another forward-thinking pianist on Blue Note. (Mr. Dave went there too, as did Beyoncé.)
“It’s totally natural. It’s home,” Mr. Glasper said of the new album’s style during an interview that began at his upstairs apartment in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn. “I was playing that kind of stuff before I was playing jazz: R&B stuff, church vibe.”
And while “Black Radio” takes cross-pollination to proud extremes — its early stretch finds Ms. Badu on a head-bobbing version of the jazz standard “Afro Blue,” followed by Lalah Hathaway on a faithfully slinky cover of Sade’s “Cherish the Day” — Mr. Glasper has been pursuing this agenda virtually from the start. “Mood,” the 2003 debut that got him signed to Blue Note, features interludes and chord progressions reminiscent of hip-hop production; it also features Bilal, the eclectic soul singer whom Mr. Glasper had met during their freshman orientation at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music.
Mr. Glasper’s first three Blue Note albums follow an arc that he now attributes to strategy: “I wanted to do a few trio records, so no one can sit there and say, ‘This cat can’t really play.’ ” His first such outing, “Canvas” (2005), suggested youthful emulation of his jazz-piano hero, Mulgrew Miller. The follow-up, “In My Element” (2007), inched closer to a hip-hop sensibility, while “Double Booked” (2009) superficially straddled the divide, with its first half involving his acoustic trio and its second half featuring the Experiment.
Respect flowed from both constituencies, sometimes in unexpected ways. Q-Tip was a regular at Mr. Glasper’s trio gigs well before they became collaborators; Lupe Fiasco first encountered his music by way of an in-flight entertainment menu. And at some point Mr. Glasper began to notice that his trio’s following skewed younger and more African-American than the current norm in jazz. “All the club owners were like, ‘Hey, we don’t usually see this kind of crowd,’ ” he said. “And I love the fact that you go to my show, you see a 17-year-old black kid and an 80-year old white woman, bopping. To Dilla.”
That would be J Dilla, the visionary producer whose exactingly elliptical innovations have resonated almost as deeply in certain jazz circles as they have in hip-hop and R&B. (He died, after a debilitating illness, in 2006.) If anyone in jazz deserves credit for his post-bop incursions, it’s Mr. Glasper, who put a tribute called “J Dillalude” on “In My Element,” and often alludes to the producer’s work even when playing standards. His arrangement of Thelonious Monk’s “Think of One,” from “Double Booked,” opens with a skittering refraction of the theme before the trio kicks in, gradually sidling into “Stakes Is High,” the J Dilla-produced title track from a 1996 De La Soul album.
“Nobody plays Dilla like us,” Mr. Glasper said, and then leaned toward my recording device. “End quote.” He laughed and clarified: “I’m one of the only jazz musicians who can say I worked with him. I was at the crib.” (As he occasionally reminds his audiences, he was there when J Dilla created “Reminisce,” a woozy track on Bilal’s 2001 debut.)
The creative exchange between jazz and hip-hop has always worked best when jazz provided source material rather than a methodology. Miles Davis wanly flirted with the concept during the same era that yielded classic jazz-informed hip-hop by Guru, A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul. “The precedent was set,” Lupe Fiasco said. “It was just waiting for somebody who was a master with jazz, in its own right, to come in and bridge the gap. It was a matter of the stars aligning, and they aligned over Robert, and the Experiment. They play hip-hop and jazz, but with a mastery of both. And not a schooled mastery.”
Of course the same could fairly be said of the trumpeter Roy Hargrove, who appeared on the Holy Trinity of millennial neo-soul albums — D’Angelo’s “Voodoo,” Common’s “Like Water for Chocolate” and Ms. Badu’s “Mama’s Gun” — and later made a splash with his own “RH Factor” (Verve), which featured those artists and a handful of others. Mr. Glasper, who pulled a sideman shift on an RH Factor tour, agreed that Mr. Hargrove’s crossover effort was the obvious precursor to his own. “The difference is that I made it a bit more mainstream,” he said, citing the scarcity of solos on “Black Radio,” and its focus on songs. “And when we do our hip-hop stuff, it’s a little more actual hip-hop vibe.”
That’s true, and it has something to do with the art of reverse engineering. Playing “Stakes Is High,” for instance, also means emulating a sample at its core: the syncopated chord sequence from “Swahililand,” a 1974 track by the jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal. “It’s truly a postmodern statement, in that Robert’s music is an outgrowth of the music that hip-hop used to sample,” said Eli Wolf, an executive producer of the new album. “And on top of it he’s incorporating elements from the hip-hop of that era.”
That process plays out with appreciable subtlety on “Black Radio,” which was recorded over four days in a Los Angeles studio, with minimal advance preparation. All the instrumental tracks were recorded live, often in a single take; in most cases the vocalist was there too. “It was like a freeway of artists coming in and out of the studio,” said Ledisi, who recalled seeing Bilal and King, a female R&B vocal trio, when she arrived.
“It was very, very, very loose,” Mr. Glasper said, “and very jazz in that way.” He noted another, more literal jazzlike touch: his acoustic piano filigree, which runs throughout, as accent and signature. And then of course there’s the agility of his band, with a rapport that points toward jazz even when the music doesn’t.
We’ll be seeing more along these lines, and not just from Mr. Glasper. Blue Note has committed to releasing “Live Today,” the yearningly melodic debut by Mr. Hodge. Mr. Dave said he had his own solo albums in the works. The suave young singer José James has earned a following by blending jazz, hip-hop and soul. And last year, before he won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition, Kris Bowers played on Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “Watch the Throne.”
A cynic might characterize this burst of like-minded activity as a function of commerce, and Mr. Glasper wouldn’t necessarily disagree. But he and his band mates, in separate conversations, also kept returning to the idea of honesty.
“If you’re honest with yourself, your influences will shine through,” he said. “And you’ll write songs that sound like you, and you’ll incorporate things that you actually like, and not feel like you have to follow these certain guidelines.”
He paused and punctuated the silence with a chuckle. “People always tell me, ‘Oh, man, you’re the future of jazz.’ I’m like: ‘No, I’m now. I’m relevant now.’ ”