Robert Glasper: Covered (The Robert Glasper Trio Recorded Live at Capital Studios)
The Best R&B Grammy winner who is really a jazz pianist does both on this acoustic trio record.
If you listen to early recordings by Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, or McCoy Tyner, you will hear some superb but relatively conventional jazz pianism. Playing as sidemen with older talents, they were more likely to stick to the script of the moment. But within less than a decade, each would become idiosyncratically themselves, developing an individual vocabulary they had nurtured over some time and moving its quirks to the center of their art. In essence, they became more utterly themselves, to the point where just a bar or two or their playing made it clear that only they could be at keys.
If you listen Robert Glasper’s first Blue Note disc as a leader, 2005’s Canvas, similarly you hear only the prototype, the beginnings of a wholly individual voice. It’s there, a new sound, but there is still plenty of playing that might be someone else or someone coming from similar influences.
On Covered, his latest recording (but, like the early ones, a strictly acoustic jazz trio record) there is no more mistaking Glasper for anyone but himself.
Today, Robert Glasper has about as distinctive a profile as you can have in jazz. He is a Grammy-winning leader of several bands, an in-demand producer for other artists, as well as a prolific session player. He has a distinctive sound that makes him immediately identifiable on any record. He’s big enough that, on the new record by bassist and producer Marcus Miller, he plays a Fender Rhodes electric piano solo on just one song — one song on which a regular band member plays the Rhodes accompaniment. That’s how special he is.
Although Glasper is undoubtedly a jazz player, his Grammy is not for jazz. And much of his production and sideman work has been in hip hop. And his new recording for Blue Notes sits right on the line; intriguingly so.
Back from years of silence is Glasper’s acoustic jazz trio (with Vicente Archer on bass and Damion Reid on drums) playing songs mostly from Glasper's two R&B-ish Black Radio records: tunes by Glasper, Macy Gray, Radiohead, Musiq Soulchild, Joni Mitchell, Jhene Aiko, John Legend, and Bilal Oliver. Does that make Covered a jazz recording of “new standards”? Not in the conventional sense, as this trio has largely transformed the language of an acoustic jazz piano trio to adapt it to a new set of rhythms and habits that are deeply informed by hip hop and its musical cousins. Robert Glasper doesn’t “swing” these pop songs (which is an old idea he’d hardly bother with).
Instead, what emerges on Covered is the full extent to which Robert Glasper has matured as an individual stylist. Today, he sounds utterly Glasper on everything he plays, no matter the source material or context. I’m not saying he is as great or important as Monk or Tyner, of course, but he is now as distinctive.
Take his new “Stella by Starlight”. He begins unaccompanied in a tumbling rush of notes that track the well-known harmonies of a thousand other versions. But the attack is rhythmically distinctive, quickly breaking into Glasper’s signature sound: a fluttering arpeggiation of chords and melody that offsets his right and left hand by portion of a beat. It gives his acoustic piano a slightly processed sound, as if he had run it through a mental “chorus” pedal. Soon, Archer and Reid are in, but this is hardly a “jazz ballad” performance by the trio. Archer is thumping “the one” in his own stuttered heartbeat pattern, and Reid is playing quadruple-time brush hits against his snare, chittering and syncopating, almost as if he were performing impossibly fine and fast scratching on a turntable. Glasper’s improvised runs are set against “Stella” harmonies, but what seems to be a shortened and altered sequence of chords, such that when the melody returns it is just a sketch of itself.
There are other tunes where Glasper has chosen a melody and harmonic structure that is already fully to his liking. Joni Mitchell's “Barangrill” barely requires a transformation, as the songwriter’s floating sense of harmony and spinning melody is right in Glasper’s bag. His style also seems beautifully suited to Radiohead on “Reckoner” (from In Rainbows) with a simple melody a pulsing chords in a deceptively not-that-simple pattern pass from drone into groove. Each song gives Glasper a chance to improvise in probing lines against a groove.
The bulk of material here, however, is not comprised of altered jazz standards or the rock-era “new standards” that other jazz players have already conquered. Glasper puts most of his energy and new jazz piano language into a series of compositions that blend contemporary rhythm and blues, hip hop, and Glasper’s original sensibility. “I Don’t Even Care” (written with singer Macy Gray) is a super-simple descending string of chords with a basic melody, almost too simple to be distinguished on an acoustic trio record. But the pianist begins a series of quick, inventive improvised phrases that he makes more fascinating by altering the texture, first by humming along, then later by doubling the improvisation in octaves using both hands. Reid and Archer have a pattern of contrapuntal rhythms going such that the song grows much more complicated as the solo develops. making the whole thing as thrilling and tricky as any bebop tune, even though the groove and harmonies begin simply.
Not every performance works as admirably. “So Beautiful” is another pretty composition, but it is slim on melodic and harmonic invention and probably thrives with a great vocal. When Archer and Glasper harmonize on the simple melodic motif, it’s awfully cool, but there’s so little structure to this song that it requires extra gloss to get you going. Here and there a really cool chord from the pianist, the play of Reid’s drum variations once the solo begins, but even Glasper seems to understand that the performance needs a gimmick, so he adds a phone message from composer Musiz Soulchild thanking the leader for covering his tune and explaining its uplifting message (which message, you know, isn’t conveyed by a trio performance without lyrics).
Covered was recorded live at Capital Studios in New York with a live audience, but there is a heap of this kind of editing and non-live effects. “I’m Dying of Thrist” is a reprise of a Kendrick Lamar tune (or its feel and harmonic structure, sort of) that achieves chilling power with the recitation of the names of many people of color killed by police without justification. As potent as this track is, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusere did the exact same thing on his most recent album (“Rolecall for Those Absent” on The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint). “Get Over” features Harry Belafonte speaking about his life and struggles over a moving set of Glasperian chord figures for trio, another production that is remarkably moving and apt, a tale of exceptional success and talent. This track, like many others here, features a studio fade at the end, even though these are live performances.
There are other places where Robert Glasper is just the post-modern piano hero that we want today, standing easily next to folks like Ethan Iverson and Jason Moran. The long “In Case You Forgot” almost might be Glasper reminding us that, yeah, he’s got all the chops and imagination you could want, even if he loves a slow R&B jam. It starts solo and totally improvised, playful, his piano bouncing and playing, a cadenza of whimsy that winds in a bopping lick that gets the trio to join in with sudden, precise hits. After a number of these hits, Glasper breaks into ballad tempos for a second to play hints of familiar, lovely melodies (such as Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time”) only to have the trio fly into overdrive for a virtuoso set of individual solos and ensemble passages that funk and groove like no other trio can.
There are circles where Robert Glasper is a figure of controversy. This is inevitable when a jazz musician courts popular success, which is to be expected. On Covered Glasper does not try to answer his critics directly, but he certainly plays both wonderfully and from the heart. He addresses the music he loves, and he does so in a “jazz” vocabulary that is utterly his own. I don’t love every track, but I will tell you this: I’m dying to hear the artist’s next release, to absorb his next idea, and to follow him where his individual voice takes him.
That’s about as high as praise gets in jazz.