Swing Time: Robert Glasper
The virtuosic Texan keyboardist finds a much needed “scenery change” while staying put at the legendary Blue Note, thanks to an all-star mix of guests and impressive spread of styles.
For the month of October 2018, Robert Glasper owned New York’s Blue Note Jazz Club.
Not literally, of course, but he might as well have. During his residency there, the keyboardist/composer, whose music incorporates jazz, hip-hop, R&B and more, headlined some 48 shows over 24 nights at the venerable venue, working with no less than seven different configurations. Two of the groupings were tributes to the 40-year-old musician’s departed heroes: pianist Mulgrew Miller and cultural cornerstone Miles Davis. Another was a nod to Glasper’s hometown of Houston. Other nights showcased Glasper’s wide range of musical interests, featuring such virtuosic collaborators as Terrace Martin, Christian McBride, Nicholas Payton, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, Chris Dave, Taylor McFerrin, Derrick Hodge, Kendrick Scott, Bilal, Bobby McFerrin, and Yasiin Bey, the artist formerly known as Mos Def.
This much jumping around might give some artists a colossal headache, but for Glasper, the variation was the only way to approach such an extended stay. “If I was doing a whole month with one band in one place, I’d probably go crazy,” he says by phone following the initial run of shows, which featured drummer Dave and bassist Hodge, a rhythm section that Glasper has been teaming with for some 15 years. “I need the scenery change. If I’m getting on a plane and the scenery changes, it feels like something different each night. Here, the bands change and the special guests change. Plus, I’m reaching different audiences. I’m making my personal brand bigger and I’m able to have a bigger platform.”
The main impetus behind the residency, Glasper further explains, was to celebrate the diverse threads of his artistry. His hope going in was that some audience members would arrive for one aspect of the music and then find something new that they enjoy. To illustrate, Glasper cites the lineup for the final set of October shows. The four-night run featured the new band he calls R+R=NOW, which released its critically praised debut album Collagically Speaking last June. The personnel on the album and shows included multi-instrumentalist/rapper Martin, trumpeter Scott, Hodge, keyboardist/beatboxer Taylor McFerrin, drummer Justin Tyson and, of course, Glasper on keys.
“There are some people who don’t know who Christian Scott is, and some who don’t know who Terrace is, and I’m sure there are people who don’t know who the fuck I am, but they love Terrace Martin,” he says. “I have different sides, and you want people to come back, especially if you’re doing a month. I had some people tell me they’ve got tickets to all of the shows. So it’s good for everybody.”
Glasper has always been a musical polyglot. On his albums and during his live shows, he’s consistently darted from one concept to another: His Robert Glasper Trio (bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Damion Reid) dwells squarely in the land of acoustic straight- ahead jazz; their most recent release, 2015’s Covered, found them reworking tunes by Radiohead, Joni Mitchell, John Legend and Kendrick Lamar (whose landmark To Pimp a Butterfly included Glasper on keyboards), among others.
The two volumes of Glasper’s Black Radio albums, made with his electric band the Robert Glasper Experiment, explored the ties between jazz and hip-hop; the first won the award for Best R&B Album at the Grammy Awards in 2013. Glasper also contributed to the soundtrack of the Miles Davis-related film Miles Ahead and the Davis tribute album Everything’s Beautiful. Glasper says that his decisions about which project to take on next are instinctual.
“It’s a state of mind,” he says. “I tend to gravitate toward musicians who are very open and musically fluid and have an appreciation for more than one genre. Even if you’re a jazz musician, the fact that you can have an appreciation for another genre means something. A lot of people act like jazz came out of the blue, like spontaneous combustion or some shit, but it was made from other sources of music. It’s a mutt; it was born a mutt. So there shouldn’t be a problem. Without mixing, there would be no jazz.”
Gospel is also a part of Glasper’s mix; it’s where it all began for him back in his Houston youth. “I grew up playing in church,” he says, “and as a young kid playing in church, you get good at tapping into the spirit. At any given moment, people are going to cry and you have to play background music to them crying, background music to the preacher praying. So you really tap into the emotional side of music. In another way, it’s preparing you to give a show, because every Sunday you’re in front of hundreds of people. When I was in high school, the last church I played for, the membership was 10,000 people. At the time, it was the biggest church in Houston. People are always asking, ‘Do you get stage fright?’ I’m like, ‘Nah, never,’ because I’m so used to playing in front of so many people.”
Looking ahead, Glasper says that his next venture will hopefully be a third installment in the Black Radio series. “It’s been almost five years since the last one came out, so it’s time,” he says. “There’s been a lot of new artists that have come on the scene, so it would be cool.”
An R+R=NOW follow-up is also on his wish list. “This configuration is probably the most easy and non-egotistical band,” he says. “Everybody is so musically generous. We all just listen to each other. You would think if you get a bunch of cats like us in the room, a bunch of monsters, the music will be crazy. Look at what we can do! But we’re totally opposite of that—a different mindset. We love just listening and playing for the moment and making real music and not playing music with our dicks, so to speak. We try to play music from our hearts and it comes through that way. We’re all romantics.”
This article originally appears in the December 2018 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.