In the world of modern jazz, not many are as popular or eclectic as Robert Glasper. Fusing elements of hip-hop and soul into his work, it’s no wonder that the Houston native has worked with everyone from jazz saxophonist Terrace Martin to soul singer Erykah Badu to rapper Mos Def. Black Radio, his last album, exemplified this unique place that Glasper holds in modern music, with songs that revitalized neo-soul, jazz-hop fusions that emcees rapped over, and even a “Smells Like Teen Spirit” cover all thrown onto the album. Glasper is certainly one of the most musically diverse jazz artists since Miles Davis, giving credence to his statement that he’s “living in the spirit of Miles.” To prove his love for the jazz legend, Glasper recruited various soul and hip-hop acts from across the world to put together one of the most unique tribute albums in honor of one of the most unique figures in popular jazz.
Unlike most tribute albums, which generally devolve into glorified cover songs, Everything’s Beautiful is a musical collage of Miles Davis’s work. Glasper mixes in some of the jazz legend’s riffs and melodies in order to create new and original songs that sound almost nothing like the source material. The music is mixed tastefully, changing certain stylistic elements but retaining the same passion and energy that Davis himself imbued in his music, and the end result is an album that has no major flaws musically from start to finish.
Seeing as how the guest artists on Everything’s Beautiful are so varied, it’s no wonder that each song is also unique and distinctive. “They Can’t Hold Me Down”, for example, is a fusion of hip-hop and jazz, quite close sonically to something that Sounwave or Questlove might have helped produce. What really completes this track, though, is Illa J’s verse, which sounds as if his brother, J Dilla, were rapping. It’s the most haunting moment on the album, since the song feels as much a tribute to Miles Davis as it does to the great Detroit producer (who was, unsurprisingly, a fan of Davis as well).
Illa J is not the only great feature on this album. “Violets” is another jazz-hop fusion, with some beautiful piano passages and backing female vocals. Phonte is perfect on it, not only rapping but also ad-libbing at the end. Similarly, British soul singer Laura Mvula does a fantastic job on “Silence Is the Way”, her voice full and heavy over moody keys and smooth bass. Georgia Anne Muldrow, John Scofield, and Ledisi also prove their singing chops on “Milestones” and “I’m Leaving You”, both of which have funky electronic synths and even a few ear-grabbing electric guitar riffs and solos. And of course, Stevie Wonder decimates the closer of the album with his signature harmonica solo over some swinging jazz horns.
While none of the songs on Everything’s Beautiful are bad, there are a few that are so slow and laidback that they lose their appeal. “Song for Selim” is one of these, where the string section, light synth noises, and delicate vocals by King are more focused on creating a beautiful atmosphere than being an interesting song. However, what’s really surprising is how lethargic the Erykah Badu and Hiatus Kaiyote tracks are. On “Maisha”, the longest song on the album, Badu coos gently over light cymbal hits and soft piano for seven minutes, while “Little Church” is most likely one of the quietest songs that Hiatus Kaiyote has ever been on. Considering the fact that Badu and Glasper’s collaborations are usually stellar (“Afro Blue” from Black Radio comes to mind) and that the last Hiatus Kaiyote album, Choose Your Weapon, was one of the most fiery neo-soul albums in recent memory, it’s a bit of a disappointment that they weren’t more enthusiastic on Everything’s Beautiful, even if their performances weren’t particularly bad.
If anyone could have done a Miles Davis tribute album justice, it was Robert Glasper. Just as Davis himself seemed to be at the forefront of every new jazz style throughout his career, Glasper has been part of a new, burgeoning jazz movement, injecting elements of soul, electronic, funk, and hip-hop into his music to revitalize the old jazz genre. In the end, Everything’s Beautiful is not the real tribute; it’s Glasper’s determination to evolve the genre that is, and I don’t think Miles Davis would have it any other way.