Born April 1978 in Houston, Texas Robert Glasper cites his mother as his first musical influence and indeed Kim Yvette Glasper sang jazz and blues professionally and encouraged her son to perform at various local churches where the young man learnt about harmony and gospel arrangements. Prodigiously talented he enrolled at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York City where he befriended future accomplice Bila Oliver. With Glasper’s increasing interest in classic jazz in full swing and Bilal’s knowledge of the smart side of hip-hop and R&B they made a formidable pairing and came into contact with esteemed players like Mos Def, Q-Tip, Kanye West, Meshell Ndegeocello, Erykah Badu, Jay-Z, Common and Maxwell, being just some of the stellar musicians who would share their address books.
Having done useful time in bands with older guitar heads Russell Malone and Mark Whitfield Glasper was inspired to make his debut, Mood (2003) for the Fresh Sound New Talent label and stunned listeners with his take on Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage”, taking the jazz standard into areas influenced by Radiohead.
Blue Note Records spotted Robert and gave him his major-label debut in 2005, the mighty fine Canvas. Bursting with original songs and another Hancock tune, "Riot", Glasper’s soulful Fender Rhodes was enriched by Bilal’s treated almost drone-like vocals on “Chant” and “I Remember” while complex drummer Damion Reid and the brilliant tenor saxophonist Mark Turner brought shades of John Coltrane to the room. Bass man Vicente Archer nails it all to the ground.
Glasper’s second Blue Note disc, 2007’s In My Element, revisits the “Maiden Voyage” treatment and expands to a medley with Radiohead’s “Everything in Its Right Place” acting as counterpoint. Produced with Eli Wolf and zoning in on the trio format Glasper continued to introduce spectacular new material that embraces R&B and gospel and gives jazz a shot of adrenaline to the esoteric improvisations that sets tracks like. The closing “Tribute” is a eulogy to Glasper’s mother recited by Reverend Joe Ratliff.
On Double-Booked (2009) Robert showcases his Trio on side one. He offers the delightful “Yes I’m Country (And That’s OK)” a nod down home to Texas, and also revives Thelonious Monk’s “Think of One” – uniting different generations of Blue Note wonderment. On side two it’s time to christen the Experiment. Hancock’s “Butterfly” is brought back to life while Mos Def and Bilal do vocal honours on some futuristic hip-hop cuts that reveal they are kindred spirits for the main man. Electric bass man Derrick Hodge bosses the experimental “Open Mind”. The key piece is probably the lengthy “Festival”: it’s also worth noting that the music was all recorded live in the studio. The turntablism scratches on the finale come from Jahi Sundance. This disc has been released as a remastered double album as part of Blue Note Records 75th Anniversary Vinyl Initiative and sounds fantastic six years on.
And so to the breakthrough disc, the one where nu-jazz comes of age: the mighty Black Radio. You have to hear what The Robert Glasper Experiment can do to the aforementioned Bowie and Nirvana tracks to really appreciate how he turns them upside down without losing sight of the original melodies. It’s all a question of coherence and concentration.
Just as impressive is the gorgeous “Afro Blue”, the perfect vehicle for Erykah Badu’s sweet soul voice.
There couldn’t have been much doubt where the Grammy was heading once the panel heard Black Radio: it’s as audacious a disc as anything from the current decade. Look out too for iTunes bonus track, a trip into John Coltrane’s signature piece A Love Supreme” and also check out Black Radio Recovered: The Remix EP. The accolades garnered by the parent album took it to 1 on the Top Jazz charts and the Remixes hit #2. That it also made the #10 slot on the Billboard 200 is truly remarkable but since it lived up to its name once the airwaves picked up on “Gonna Be Alright (F.T.B.)” featuring the New Orleans-born Ledisi maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised.
Black Radio’s stunning fusion of styles, guests and players is one thing but then consider that Glasper also produced it all and wrote the bulk of the material…
Black Radio 2 does the near-impossible and repeats the trick, revealing itself as a cooler sequel that takes just as many risks but with a more measured approach. Important pieces here are Stevie Wonder’s “Jesus Children of America” (Grammy Award winner in the Best Traditional R&B Performance category) where Lalah Hathaway and Malcolm Jamal-Warner trade off; “I Stand Alone”, a sublime slab of Chicago inflected hip-hop featuring Common and Patrick Stump”; and “Let It Ride”, where Norah Jones rolls into her vocal like someone discovering a new lingua franca. Once again The Experiment excel in their own spheres with vocoder and synths used as subtle hues on the canvas; Fender Rhodes, piano, sax, bass and drums offer the broader brush strokes. This time we urge you to discover the Deluxe Edition and be enthralled by Macy Gray and Jean Grae on “I Don’t Even Care”, as well as a cover of the Bill Withers classic “Lovely Day” that includes a spoken introduction from Bill himself. Bliss.
Jaw-dropping versatility being a given thus far it’s refreshing to hear Glasper talking about giving jazz the “big-ass slap that’ll wake it up”. We are all ears for the forthcoming Covered, premiered at the Village Vanguard in New York (where else?) and can’t wait to share the love as Robert, Vicente and Reid stretch out on Joni Mitchell’s 1972 gem “Barandgrill”, Radiohead’s “Reckoner” and John Legend’s “Good Morning”. Like its illustrious forebears Covered promises to be the nu-jazz album of the summer. Get on the case. Get covered discovered.
Words” Max Bell
Canvas is pianist Robert Glasper's second recording, and his first on Blue Note. He's joined by bassist Vincente Archer and drummer Damion Reid for the main portion of Canvas, while tenor Mark Turner and vocalist Bilal make two appearances each. Perhaps the first thing a listener might note of Glasper's style on the original, "Rise and Shine," is its rich, melodic flavor. While this lyricism alone would draw the listener in, it's Glasper's ability to develop new ideas as the piece progresses, adding complexity to his lyricism, that really recommends his approach. In the case of the title cut, Glasper and company keep the composition intriguing for nearly ten minutes. It's also nice on Canvas that both Archer and Reid match Glasper's adventurousness, providing an intricate net that both supports his solos and drives them onward. Turner blends effortlessly into the band on the title cut and Herbie Hancock's "Riot," adding a slightly bigger sound and turning in fine lead work. The vocals come rather late in the program on tracks seven and ten, and are not typically what one might expect from vocals (even in jazz). Instead, Bilal's wordless drone, hum, and smooth choral backing mixes like an additional instrument that adds another textural element to the music. Canvas also sounds great, and producer Eli Wolf has done a fine job putting these elements together into an organic whole. Canvas is both melodic and adventurous, and will please both Glasper's fans and anyone who appreciates good piano jazz.
Words: Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
Pianist Robert Glasper was Blue Note's big discovery of 2005, a young player whose music fit into jazz's modern mainstream yet was open to the influences of R&B and hip-hop, both of which he had performed previously. What is particularly impressive about Glasper's playing on In My Element is that he does not sound like anyone else. Although his style does not necessarily blaze any new paths and this is a conventional if modern piano trio CD, Glasper has his own sound and approach. Bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Damion Reid work very well with Glasper. The three musicians blend together perfectly and think along similar lines. While "Silly Rabbit," with its use of an answering machine message, is a little eccentric and the closing "Tribute" has excerpts from a eulogy for Glasper's mother recited by Reverend Joe Ratliff, the music in general is not so much innovative as it is a revitalization of the jazz piano trio. The thought-provoking improvisations grow in interest with each listen.
Words: Scott Yanow
There is a certain hipness in title of Double-Booked that reflects the hipness of the music itself. It hints at two voicemail messages by Terrence Blanchard and ?uestlove, respectively, that ask Robert Glasper about apparently being double booked on the same night with two different bands at different clubs. The irony in that paradox is that Glasper performs with his acoustic trio on the first half of the record, and with his Experiment on the second half. Glasper’s trio is a crack unit with Chris Dave on drums and bassist Vincente Archer. They understand where he’s at rhythmically and know how to knot things up and swing simultaneously. The expansive harmonics inherent in the album’s first two tracks -- the skittering flow on “No Worries” that takes its post-bop seriously with some amazing improvisation, and the more open, airy lyricism on “Yes I’m Country (And That’s OK)" -- are kind of opposite ends of the coin, but they're underscored and punctuated by an innovative reading of Thelonious Monk’s “Think of One” to close the trio part of the record. The Experiment's half begins as Mos Def raps over Glasper's Rhodes piano and Dave’s hip-hop drums. It expands from here with Derrick Hodge’s funky electric bass, and saxophonist’s Casey Benjamin's use of a vocoder over Dave's breakbeats. The centerpiece is the ten-minute “Festival,” an ultra-modern, funky jazz tune with some complex improvisational navigation. Glasper plays acoustic piano and Rhodes going head to head with that low-tuned funky bass and Benjamin’s outward-bound sax and spacy vocoder. Bilal joins the band on the last two cuts. He is as comfortable singing jazz and soul as he is hip-hop; he’s a kindred spirit for Glasper. “All Matter” walks on the hip-hop side of jazz, and Hodge's “Open Mind,” which makes use of Jahi Sundance’s turntablism, is a midtempo ballad drenched in experimental jazz and nu-soul as Dave practices frantic breaks inside the shimmering melodic structure. Another notable thing about Double-Booked is that it was recorded completely live in the studio. This is modern jazz that extends into popular music -- without compromise.
Words: Thom Jurek
Black Radio, the title of the Robert Glasper Experiment's proper Blue Note debut, is a double signifier. There's the dictionary's definition: "the device in an aircraft that records technical data during a flight, used in case of accident to discover its cause." And there's Angelika Beener's in her liner essay. She defines Black Radio as "representative of the veracity of Black music" which has been "...emulated, envied and countlessly re-imagined by the rest of the world...." With jazz as its backbone, Glasper, drummer Chris Dave, bassist Derrick Hodge, and Casey Benjamin on reeds, winds, and vocoder, cued by the inspiration of black music's illustrious cultural past, try to carve out a creative place for its future. The album is a seamless, deeply focused meld of jazz, hip-hop, adult contemporary R&B, neo-soul, even rock, with an expansive use of rhythmic and melodic invention; all of it surrounded by spacious, natural-sounding production that's smooth, never slick. The various elements yield the desired result: making the whole greater than its parts. Sa-Ra's Shafiq Husayn introduces it with "Lift Off." Erykah Badu takes the Cuban jazz classic "Afro Blue" and extends it using hip-hop rhythms and neo-soul groove wedded to her signature, jazz-tinged croon. Benjamin's airy flute and Glasper's Rhodes and piano converge in the center; Hodge's bass adds slip for the drum kit. Lalah Hathaway's gorgeous vocal on Sade's "Cherish the Day" finds the rhythm section bumping around the fringes and creating a new pocket, which she embraces while finding spaces inside the song that weren't there before. On "Always Shine," Lupe Fiasco's flow meets Bilal's emotive modern soul. The band stretches conventional 4/4 time, and the piano and synth shapeshift through the melody, adding depth and musical drama. "Gonna Be Alright" is a re-imagining of Glasper's "F.T.B." with new lyrics and a rousing, elegant vocal by Ledisi. King dreamily croons through "Move Love," as the Experiment pushes the time accents to a near breaking point. "Ah Yeah," with Musiq (Soulchild) and Chrisette Michele, is a sensual babymaker that expands the reach of contemporary jazz. The subtle yet fragmented breaks in "The Consequences of Jealousy," combined with Glasper's right-handed, upper-register chord creations, give Me'Shell Ndégeocello's vocal room to step outside the frame to fully inhabit the brooding musical simmer as an improviser. On "Why Do We Try," Stokley's (Mint Condition) breezy vocal is the bridge between Glasper's counterpoint melodies (one on each hand, with plenty of block chord improvisation), and the organ-esque timbres, popping breakbeats, and rumbling bass harmonics. The title track, with Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) commences with hip-hop in the tune's head; the rhythm section charges full press to meet his rapid-fire delivery, but Glasper and Benjamin offer gentler modal grooves on the margins without blunting the impact. Bilal uses his elastic phrasing to offer an iconic reading of David Bowie's "Letter to Hermione," as the band follows and builds upon his twists and turns. A drum machine and slurred speaking voice introduce Glasper's modally strident reading of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" to close. As Benjamin sings through his vocoder, loops, blips, and sample fragments haunt the middle like ghosts. Glasper approaches the melody elliptically; but grounds the entire tune, even as the rhythm section and effects gather steam. Before long, everything converges to propel it into the stratosphere. Black Radio creates an entirely new context for popular music in its near erasure of boundaries. It is the sound of the future -- even if no one knows it yet.
Words: Thom Jurek