It is endlessly the dream of jazz musicians to use contemporary pop music as the fuel for their experiments and improvisations. If jazz once seemed stuck on the “standards” of Tin Pan Alley from the 1920s through ‘50s, then the last two decades have brought countless “new standards” projects interpreting rock era tunes by the Beatles, Radiohead, Nirvana, Stevie Wonder, you name it. Jazz and hip-hop have met on projects from both sides of the tracks as well — from Black Star to jazz pianist Robert Glasper.
With Black Radio, Glasper is out to fuse his brand of acoustic piano groove with a wide range of pop music. Of course, there is hip-hop here — even on his acoustic trio records, Glasper has been finding ways for his own piano rhythms, combined with those of his drummer Chris Dave, to mimic the lurching jaggedness of that style’s groove. He comes by this having played on Q-Tip’s most recent recording and being the musical director for Mos Def’s touring band. But Black Radio is broader than that and true to its name, putting across pop music that spans soul, rock, and hip-hop, too.
The disc essentially begins with an old tune, the Mongo Santamaria Latin-jazz hit “Afro Blue”, featuring a sly vocal by Erykah Badu. Dave sets up a beautifully recorded drum track, all trebly snare and cymbals, and Glasper percolates beneath in what has become his signature style, keeping up a frequent and meandering acoustic obbligato beneath the vocal. The tune is given polish by Fender Rhodes washes and a descending figure on flute by Casey Benjamin. Badu is simply placed atop the whole thing to quietly purr the melody in a sexy blend of Billie Holiday and Eartha Kitt. It is sinuous.
Lalah Hathaway gets a similar treatment on Sade’s 1980s hit, “Cherish the Day”. Glasper never really takes a solo on these kinds of tracks, preferring to play a running commentary around the vocal. It’s soulful and hip for sure, but there isn’t all that much to the piano part that couldn’t have been played by a decent pop pianist you might find in any town. Rather, it’s the concept of these tracks that you’re meant to be seduced by.
And that’s where Black Radio curdles a bit. On “Cherish the Day” and elsewhere too the most prominent sound other than the lead vocal is a processed saxophone or vocoder sound produced by Benjamin. This kind of self-conscioiusly artificial synth-tastic sound showed up on many of the tracks from Glasper’s last disc, Double-Booked, and it is clearly part of Glasper’s favourite arsenal. This part of the concept — a weirdly dated throwback sound that becomes vastly more prominent than the leader’s own playing — is in the ear of the beholder, no doubt. I’d prefer to pass on it.
It’s center stage on Glasper’s take on “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, which is otherwise very compelling. The piano, drums, and what sounds like a hand drum set up the famous rhythm groove with a loping swing. It’s a brilliant idea — mashing a famous rock tune with the off-beat syncopations of jazz but still the textures and rhythmic displacements of hip-hop. The lead vocal, however, is Benjamin on vocoder — a robot Kurt Cobain, a moon-man voice that comes off as perhaps clever but not compelling. It’s a “cool” idea for a track that ought to be fascinating and exciting. On the chorus, Glasper has re-harmonized the song in truly interesting ways, but who cares? That vocoder is sliding all over the place, making you want to strangle the engineer who dreamed up the gizmo.
The Bilal vocal on David Bowie’s “Letter to Hermione” (from the 1969 Space Oddity disc) is a refreshing contrast — simple and effective, sincere but heartfelt. Dave plays with a hip martial groove here, responding to the song’s movements in conversation, and Glasper gets off his most substantial solo of the disc — playing an extended improvisation that includes thematic development and daring runs, all wound around the flute lick (doubled by wordless vocal) that acts as a motif for the piece.
Bilal also sings with Lupe Fiasco spitting rhymes on “Always Shine” — a straight hip-hop track that works as smart contemporary music. “Gonna Be Alright”, featuring bright soul singing by Ledisi, also works well, setting a sumptuous Rhodes groove under a strong vocal hook. As the arrangement develops, the vocals are gorgeously layered as the whole arrangement piles on with cool rhythmic play. Even better is “Consequence of Jealousy”, which features a whisper-sung vocal by Meshell Ndegeocello and seems like a wholly original concept for what “black radio” ought to sound like in 2012. Glasper’s acoustic piano is not lost in the mix, and the production remains harmonically intriguing while still sounding like pop music. Even the trace of vocoder about halfway through can’t spoil things.
A good amount of Black Radio is made up of hip tracks that you won’t likely recognize, and they are some of the best. “Why Do You Try” features a sharp Stokely Williams vocal over a rat-a-tat drum groove, and Glasper’s piano solo is an angular jabber of spikes and runs. “Ah Yeah” is a pillow of sound with a backbeat, letting Chrisette Michele and Musiq Soulchild layer blissful vocals from floor to ceiling. And Mos Def is set loose on the title track, creating as much rhythm with his voice alone as the band does. Glasper knows how to build interesting structures behind him, moving away from any single groove into new worlds.
In the end, however, it’s hard to know what to make of an eclectic experiment like this. As an actual pop record, of course, it is essentially impossible to imagine these tracks ever making it to the radio, black or otherwise. Though Glasper is a top-notch jazz pianist, the “jazz” content here is slim. What Glasper has knowingly created, then, is something more like a chamber-pop record — the equivalent of an indie band’s listening experiment, intended for insiders. And by that standard, Black Radio actually just seems rather tame — pleasant and fitfully surprising but maybe not a thrill.
Is this a case of a jazz musician venturing beyond his comfort zone? Nope. Glasper knows what he is doing — this isn’t amateur soul or faux hip-hop. But it’s not a bold pop record either. It’s a kind of compromise, perhaps. And, like all half-measures, it’s only part way to the finish line.