On the eve of his third Blue Note release, Double Booked, jazz pianist Robert Glasper discusses his stylistic bifurcation, MC skills, and -- inevitably -- Michael Jackson's legacy.
Recently in the Wall Street Journal, arts columnist Terry Teachout pushed a lot of buttons with his provocatively titled article, "Can Jazz Be Saved?" Taking recent National Endowment for the Arts survey stats at full value, Teachout drew some dramatic (and headline-grabbing) conclusions. Jazz is an old man's music, jazz is becoming ignored, jazz is on its deathbed, etc. To devotees, it felt like a sucker-punch: hitting jazz to the floor before it even knew it was on its knees. To distant spectators of its purported decline, labeling "jazz as a form of high art" was a familiar cue, and refrain: who cares about saving something elitist?
Ramsey Lewis, the pianist and former Chicago radio personality, responded in a constructive earnest letter to the editor, providing suggestions on stimulating interest—precisely the type of substance Teachout's initial article lacked. And last week, in the New York Times, Nate Chinen eloquently laid out some of the survey's inflexibility towards an extremely flexible, and equivocal, art form (how is jazz or jazz performance even defined, for example?) A quick glance at the iTunes store jazz section (a reasonable proxy of how the average consumer separates genres) demonstrates just how loose the nature of the term is: R&B, neo soul, funk, electronica and jam band artists are all prominently featured.
The rhetorical urgency of Teachout's piece was greatly exaggerated as was its conclusion: jazz must attract newer and younger listeners or perish. But jazz does have younger listeners and younger performers. They just happen to also like hip-hop, R&B, indie rock, electronica and myriad other genres equally. In other words, they're not following "high art."
Enter Robert Glasper. As a jazz pianist and hip-hop band leader, he personifies what excites young people about jazz. Not that he's necessarily aiming for younger crowds. "I'll get people from age 17 to 70 coming to check me out," he says. And there exist many means to check out Glasper's playing, as he equally relishes his piano duties as jazz trio leader, experimental group member (The Robert Glasper Experiment), and session and band player for the likes of Mos Def, Common, The Roots, Q-Tip, Talib Kweli, Bilal, and Maxwell among others. He's like the kid playing all-time offense on the playground basketball court.
All that hip-hop and R&B doesn't just confine him to the keys he confesses. "I free style all the time ... but I'm a battle rapper. I'm challenging anyone out there, any jazz musician who's an MC too, to battle me." Can you imagine any "high artist" accepting? Miles Davis, who famously renounced classification, surely would have.
Photo: Jessica Chornesky
Currently he's playing in Maxwell's BLACKsummersnight tour band which, incidentally, features several members of his own band. "It's fun," says Glasper, "being on the road with your cats in a different setting." Though that different setting means the occasional delirium of an all-female audience tossing panties at Maxwell, Glasper sees his participation as a session musician from a greater, even generational, perspective: "for me, I'm a jazz pianist in the old meaning." The old meaning a reference to the versatile jazz players, later known as the Funk Brothers, that became the foundation of Motown's iconic sound. So for Glasper being labeled a jazz musician is really a catch-all term, a compliment that "means so many things because to be a jazz musician means you're probably the most knowledgeable of your instrument." He goes on: "Jazz isn't just one thing. There are so many different elements that make it up. You have to have a certain amount of chops to play it correctly because you're gonna have to play fast at some point. You don't need to play fast in R&B or in that kind of thing or have the facility as you do when you're playing jazz music." However if asked to elaborate on what kind of music he plays he politely responds, "'Oh, I play other kind of music as well.'"
If the harmonic repetitiveness and lack of solos in R&B or hip-hop music leave some bored, Glasper quickly disagrees. "See that's the thing. I love the groove." Whereas Duke Ellington's dogma made any successful jazz number conditional on a good inherent swing, Glasper savors the ubiquitous pulse of hip-hop, R&B, and his own compositions. To him, "it's like a drone or something, like it puts people in a zone and it just evokes feeling and it gets spiritual." It's a comforting feeling, "to be able to just nod my head for five minutes," he says.
That next level pleasure, however, does not just emanate from any repetitive phrase or chord, but rather a combination and balance of forces that forge a lulling cadence. It's that groove that finds its way into Glasper's entire multi-faceted repertoire like a common-denominator. It's become the bedrock of Glasper's music and on his new record, Double Booked, it eventually penetrates deeper, and more naturally, than ever before.
However there still exists an obvious dichotomy between Glasper's trio and "the experiment" as he refers to it -- and that was his point, "to make sure that everybody's clear that this is who I am now. Not two different people, not two different eras of time. This is all now."
Photo: Jessica Chornesky
The album begins in familiar territory: Glasper playing a flowing but syncopated melody with his trio (Vincente Archer, bass; Chris Dave, drums.) Titled "No Worries", the bop piano lines fade into demure transitions over a brisk tempo, not unlike Ahmad Jamal's It's Magic. Like most of Glasper's compositions it was a random improvisation at first, a sound check in this case, that in minutes became a new song. It's one way in which he keeps it "as organically real as possible." Adhering to a similar feel the next track, "Yes I'm Country (And That's OK)", departs in tonal structure, becoming a beautifully pastoral and up-tempo tune. It's a deliberate nod to his Southern roots, Glasper says. "That first part is very country, like Bruce Hornsby," he says adding, "You know I love country. I would love to play with Bonnie Raitt."
As the first half of the album progresses, Dave's mercurial drumming begins to transform, the weight of the rhythm falling more heavily on the downbeats. It is a subtle shift, one in line with the heavier and more straightforward rhythms on Glasper's previous album In My Element, but it also is a signal of what's to come later. Before that happens though, we are treated to a Glasper interpretation of Monk's "Think of One." His impeccable touch and tempo shifts brilliantly capture Monk's idiosyncrasies, as does his solo introduction which even veers into some stride playing. But what's really phenomenal about Glasper's version is that it both swings like Ellington and grooves like himself, at once able to quote J Dilla and Ahmad Jamal.
However, there was a healthy hesitation to record Monk, he says, since "there's probably five million versions of 'Think of One'". A lot of Monk pieces carry such heavy reputations that he simply wanted to be sure it was "something worth putting on the record". He feels similarly about a lot of Michael Jackson songs. Like, "'I Can't Help It', that's one you don't harm," largely because it has "so many beautiful changes in it and movements in it that it's very hard to even do it and change it, unless you just change the time signature or something". So instead of covering Jackson, Glasper often just quotes his melodies, preferring not to taint the songs as their reputations far precede his own interpretations. As he puts it, "He could go in the jungle and the lions would be like, 'Roaarrr, Michael Jackson!'"
Photo: Jessica Chornesky
The second, more "risqué", half of Double Booked is, literally, Glasper's Experiment. It takes on a distinct hip-hop feel by starting with a voicemail from ?uestlove inviting Glasper to a Highline Ballroom jam session. Though Glasper toyed with the idea of going the full yard and adding a skit, he says he ran out of time. "4eva" is another entirely improvised jam that became a song. As Glasper explains it, "Chris came in first with a beat, and that's something that we'd never rehearsed, that we just made up on the spot. When you hear the keys come in, no one knew what I was playing. So I just started playing that thing and then, you know, Derrick [Hodge] came in and Mos came in with the 'foreva eva' and made that up on the spot. So that was actually, like, some real jazz in real time."
Herbie Hancock's "Butterfly" proves a perfect liaison between Glasper's jazz pianist connotation and hip-hop persona. The closing track, "Open Mind", is a spiritual ending, a trend on Glasper's albums. To Glasper it's a summary of how he approaches his music and advises others. "There's gonna be people like, 'Ooh, you got Mos Def on a jazz record' or, you know, all kinds of things they're gonna try and say. But if you have an open mind you'll probably have a different outlook on the album." Thus the boundaries Glasper erects on the album are torn down. The goal, after all, was to bring apparently conflicting genres together. As he sees it, "if you have them both on one album each side of the section is gonna hear the other side at some point and maybe like it. And that may change some minds or shift some people to check out stuff they'd never thought to check out."
For decades, Ellington's truism (actually written by lyricist Irving Mills in 1931) was the foundation of our country's soundtrack; but as generations age, so do their tastes. Groove is the new swing then, if you want it to be. Glasper sees no conflict between jazz and hip-hop and R&B because "music breathes and lives like people. It's supposed to. If you're holding it down and just trying to say one thing, you're the one who needs to get a check on yourself." The false polarities promoted by Teachout ("high art" vs. "low art") are insignificant to today's jazz listeners because for them Medeski Martin & Wood are, simply put, a good band. Teachout's labels shove jazz music to the fringe -- where most of the performing art forms are imports anyways -- away from our cultural center. Miles Davis declared jazz folk music and players like Robert Glasper declare jazz, and anything in its proximity, good music. In the end, that's the only relevant question.