Before last year, I had never heard of Robert Glasper. His instrumental cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Golden Lady”, however, appeared on my radar and made me sit up and take notice. Here was a pianist possessed with a rare sensitivity and ability. Even though it was another artist’s song, Glasper was able to infuse those 7 minutes with his own personality while staying true to the original feel, transporting it to a different place but not losing the song’s core beauty.
Those in the know know Glasper’s work, as he’s not exactly new on the scene. Recording since 2004, he’s won two Grammys in the R&B category and collaborated with a who’s who of the leading artists in that genre and hip-hop, including Kanye West, Q-Tip, Meshell Ndegeocello, and Maxwell. Yet his roots lie in jazz, and — jazz not being a hot selling genre — perhaps that’s why he’s not more widely known. It’s in a jazz setting where much of Glasper’s expression finds voice. Jazz is an underlying thread in all his work and on his straight-ahead jazz releases, the results are increasingly accomplished and sophisticated.
Working with his acoustic trio of Vicente Archer on bass and Damion Reid on drums, Covered, is, as suggested by the title, mostly cover songs. Glasper has been known for his eclectic choice of covers in the past, ranging from Nirvana and Soundgarden to the aforementioned Stevie Wonder (an additional Wonder cover, of “Jesus Children of America”, was one of those Grammy winners). On this album, songs include Joni Mitchell’s “Barangrill”, Radiohead’s “Reckoning”, and the standard “Stella by Starlight”. Despite this wide range, it all hangs together quite well.
The album benefits from being recorded live in front of a studio audience. The mood is loose and warm, like a small club date, Glasper occasionally speaking to the crowd. And, due to the small audience, the applause between tracks is not obtrusive.
Glasper is adept at avant pieces like his own composition, the 13-minute free jazz “In Case You Forgot”, but he shines most on the ballads. He hits a mellow groove halfway through the proceedings with the back-to-back tracking of “So Beautiful”, “The Worst” and John Legend’s “Good Morning”, the latter with an irresistibly memorable melody.
His bandmates are an empathetic match for his style, the interaction of all three an ongoing dialogue, the way a good jazz band should be. During the rendition of Radiohead’s “Reckoner”, the drums snap, the bass solidly keeps things moving forward, and the piano gently swings. “Stella by Starlight” is full of dancing piano cascades alternating with dissolves into rhythmic and melodic interchanges, anchored by authoritative bass and skittering cymbals. It’s the only “old” track in the collection, having been covered by many since its first incarnation in the mid-1940s. Glasper makes the song his own, fitting it seamlessly into the repertoire of mostly newer material explored here.
The album closes with two songs featuring vocals, both focusing on what it means to be black in today’s world. The first, a slow piece titled “Got Over”, features calypso legend Harry Belafonte in an autobiographical spoken word account about triumphing over the limits that have been placed on him throughout life because he is a “person of color”. His gruff, aged voice stands in juxtaposition with the children’s voices that narrate a reworking of Kendrick Lamar’s “I’m Dying of Thirst”. A case could be made either way for their inclusion on this particular album. Both tracks are important but stand apart from the instrumental jazz textures of what’s come before.
Covered stands, in the end, as a multi-layered work possessing an air of adventure, while still remaining accessible. It’s a rewarding collection by one of the most significant composers and interpreters in contemporary jazz.