sat 20/07/2024

Robert Glasper: 'When hip hop took over the world' | reviews, news & interviews

Robert Glasper: 'When hip hop took over the world'

Robert Glasper: 'When hip hop took over the world'

Genre-straddling pianist on his covers project, and how the hip hop home studio denudes music

Robert Glasper: crossing boundariesDon Q Hannah

Pianist and producer Robert Glasper is one of the most versatile and innovative musicians on the scene, working within jazz, R&B, hip hop and related genres. He has won two Grammys, one each for his two Black Radio albums, 2012 and 2015, recorded with his electronic band The Robert Glasper Experiment. He also has an acoustic trio, working more specifically in the jazz tradition.

His trio’s new Blue Note album Covered, featuring cover versions of artists including Radiohead, Bilal and Kendrick Lamar, aims to draw new listeners to the jazz idiom with recognisable tunes while also introducing jazz enthusiasts to new repertoire.

A knowledge of hip hop and R&B as well as jazz qualifies him perhaps uniquely both to splice and blend in his music, and to comment on the character and health of each musical culture. He has been outspoken about the danger of jazz ossifying. During an interview with DownBeat Magazine in April 2012, he said: “I’ve gotten bored with jazz to the point where I wouldn’t mind something bad happening. Slapping hurts, but at some point it’ll wake you up. I feel like jazz needs a big-ass slap.” Not, as I discovered, that he’s entirely satisfied with the state of R&B and hip hop either. A champion of blending genres and a restless innovator, he spoke to me about his trio’s new covers project, and about the challenges of maintaining a broadly-based, cross-fertilising musical culture in a world “taken over by hip hop”.

MATTHEW WRIGHT: You’re playing acoustic piano for the first time in several years on this record. Throughout the album, but especially on tracks like your own “In Case You Forgot”, there’s a sense of the sheer fun of sound and possibilities of the instrument. How did it feel for you?

ROBERT GLASPER: It was great to have a real piano again. On the Black Radio albums, there wasn’t much opportunity to show what I could do. I was always playing within the thread, not standing out, not displaying my skills. It was fun, and how I used to play years ago. What I do with the trio (pictured below) allows each musician to showcase their chops.

It’s a studio album, but with a live audience, and in the introduction, you ask them to show their appreciation (or not) during the performance. Do you get the best of both worlds that way?

Recording live with a studio’s facilities and the drive and energy of a live gig in front of people gave us a great sound and atmosphere. Cannonball Adderley, who was one of the most welcoming and talkative bandleaders, always used to tell the audience to react to the music. They didn’t as much because it’s a studio not a club, but it was still a responsive crowd. Also, there weren’t many musicians. It was invitation-only and the audience was made up of corporations, record label people and friends.

The Robert Glasper TrioYou’ve made a conscious decision to avoid jazz standards in favour of covers for this new album. Why is this? Is there still a place for standards like “‘Round Midnight” or have they had their day?

We did “Stella By Starlight”! But the point of the album was to play songs in a jazz setting. Standards are just songs people have played a lot. You can make a new standard. Miles did! We flipped “Stella”, turning the tune inside out, so there’s a mixture of familiar and unfamiliar melody. Including songs from outside the usual list of jazz standards introduces non-jazz people to jazz, and introduces jazz people to something good they might not have heard.

“Reckoner” (Radiohead) exists in many forms already, because it was released as stems on the Remix website. What attracted you to it? What were you trying to bring out?

I love the song and didn’t know about the stems issue. In Rainbows is one of my favourite albums, and on this track the melody is very involved. I loved the way the songs breathe, and didn’t change much on most of these songs, just a little tweak to the sound, so the drums were crispier, there was a little more hip hop, and more tambourine. They worked for our trio as they were.  

It’s a very old thing for jazz to be infused with other kinds of music

You’ve already spoken in public about working with Kendrick Lamar, especially on his latest album To Pimp a Butterfly. It sounds as though you work well together.

“I’m Dying of Thirst” is my favourite song on that album. I love the repetitiveness, it puts me in a trance. “Thirst” can represent so many different things, but I really hope that the song conveys some love, and changes people’s hearts, because black people are dying of racism. By using my son and his friends (who recite the names of black victims of police violence) I’m not having to say much. The sound of little kids makes the point for me.

I don’t actually know Kendrick that well. We played that whole section in one night and everything worked, but I’ve only met him two times before. The guys I hang out with from that scene are Bilal and Mos Def. They’re the ones I’ll call up.  

The only artist who wouldn’t let me use their song was Prince. It’s a sign of the times when lawyers get involved in this kind of decision.  

Your views about jazz needing an injection of new energy and purpose are well known. As well as Kendrick, you feature other musicians like Musiq Soulchild who combine jazz, R&B and other genres. Is this where the see the future of the music?

There isn’t anything new about my approach. It’s a very old thing for jazz to be infused with other kinds of music. The reason this kind of fusion isn’t as popular any more is that people don’t record with instruments. A generation back, all of my favourite motown recordings were made by jazz musicians, who could play anything. Now everything is electronic, you don’t have live musicians who play different kinds of music and blend sounds as they go.

That’s what I mean by "hip hop took over the world". As soon as people started using laptops to make music, which are obviously cheaper, we lost a world in which influences can mix organically. Now everyone has a home studio and works on computer you have to really love music to employ live musicians, because they cost more and take longer. But in that triumph of technology, which is the hip hop way of making music, there’s been the disappearance of something really valuable about working live.  

You’ve had great success with your Black Radio albums in the Grammy Awards. What is it about those records that chimes with the awards?

It’s the categories in which Black Radio is nominated (Best R&B Album and Best Traditional R&B Performance). The people in those rooms miss the acoustic R&B sound, which hasn’t existed since hip hop took over world, and put R&B in the shadows. I wanted everything to have a hip hop beat, with an R&B singer that overshadowed it. It’s the real chord changes, and the sound and the standard of my singers that has declined so much elsewhere.  

When I look you up on my iPod, Robert Glasper Trio and Robert Glasper Experiment are different artists. Is that how it feels?

In a way I use the trio to speak to a more jazz audience, which is not as crossover as the Experiment. The bands work in different clubs. The people who follow living R&B singers are a different audience from the hip hop one. It can be a headache if people don’t promote the show correctly. We’ve had a trainwreck then in the past.

Does that mean the trio isn’t experimental?

The trio is experimental, but with the trio’s instruments (piano, drums, bass) that only goes so far. You have more chance of connecting outside jazz with a sax, which sounds more like the voice. There’s no smooth jazz piano that’s as big as Kenny G, and that’s because of the sax sound itself.  

Is your creative approach to the trio fundamentally different from the experiment? How is the process of composing different?  

I write for both Experiment or trio specifically for the people in the group. Casey Benjamin, Derrick Hodge, Mark Colenburg for the Experiment, I’m thinking of their sound as I write, and the same for Vicente Archer and Damion Reid in the trio. That’s how you get the best sound, both individually and in the group. A lot of composers bring players to their music, but I do it the other way round, I compose for the players. It’s like writing a script for an actor who can bring out those qualities really well, rather than bringing in someone afterwards.

  • Robert Glasper Trio performs at Ronnie Scott’s 12-14 August
  • Overleaf: watch the Robert Glasper Trio peform "So Beautiful" from their album Covered



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