A Month of Robert Glasper’s Experiments at the Blue Note
Oct. 19, 2018
Robert Glasper is just the fourth musician to do a full month at the Blue Note.Vincent Tullo for The New York Times
Somewhere close to midnight last Sunday, the rapper Yasiin Bey tossed his hoodie over a mic stand and hunkered down into a shimmy, tilting forward and leaping back across the tight Blue Note stage, his eyes locked on Chris Dave’s snare drum.
The night marked the halfway point of Robert Glasper’s residency at the West Village club, continuing through Oct. 28. The pianist was perched on a stool, holding the energy just below a boil as he dotted the band’s high-friction groove with chords from one of his three keyboards. The D.J., Jahi Sundance, dropped samples over Mr. Dave’s drums and Derrick Hodge let wide, dark tones resound on the electric bass.
Mr. Glasper is just the fourth musician to do a full month at the Blue Note. (The others have been Dizzy Gillespie, Chick Corea and, for the past 13 Decembers, Chris Botti.) The residency is yet another reminder that Mr. Glasper, who turned 40 in April, is probably the most prominent jazz musician of his generation. He’s gotten there by playing within and without jazz, and pushing the music to reconsider its boundaries.
He’s known in particular for his Robert Glasper Experiment, an electric fusion quartet that has helped define a possible mainstream future for jazz, and his guest work with rappers like Mr. Bey (more widely known as Mos Def), Common and Kendrick Lamar.
Nowadays, he’s embracing his identity as a producer and a connector as much as a pianist. In the spring he released “August Greene,” the debut from a three-man collective with Common and the drummer-producer Karriem Riggins. And over the summer he toured with R+R=NOW, a fusion supergroup playing simmering original music with the stated intention of addressing the political moment.
From left: Mr. Glasper, Yasiin Bey, Jahi Sundance, Derrick Hodge and Chris Dave.Vincent Tullo for The New York Times
As he’s helped to wash away artificial divides between jazz and other contemporary black music, Mr. Glasper has spoken with a casual candor not typical of jazz musicians. “If you ever heard Miles Davis talk, I’m no different than Miles,” Mr. Glasper said, sipping a cocktail in his Blue Note dressing room earlier this month. “His freedom in talking about where he is in the music and what he’s trying to do.”
Sometimes that freedom spills over. Last year Mr. Glasper drew criticism for making comments that seemed to suggest that female listeners have a narrower interest in jazz improvisation than men do. He apologized, saying he had simply meant to express that jazz should try harder to reach female audiences. In August, he stirred up more chatter when, in a radio interview, he accused Lauryn Hill of refusing to properly pay musicians. She responded with a lengthy rebuke.
If he seems nonchalant in the spotlight, it might be partly because he arrived in New York more than 20 years ago already somewhat prepared. Raised in Houston going to gigs with his mother, a professional musician, Mr. Glasper’s first jobs were in church. “I literally was directing the choirs when I was 12,” he said. By 17, he was the pianist at a church with thousands of parishioners.
Attending the New School in New York in the late 1990s, he met the vocalist Bilal, a fellow classmate who soon found neo-soul semi-stardom. Mr. Glasper became his musical director; a few years later he took the same position with Mos Def. Soon he was also leading the Experiment, featuring Mr. Hodge, Mr. Dave and Casey Benjamin, who doubled on alto saxophone and vocoder. In 2009 Mr. Glasper released a tantalizing album, “Double Booked,” with six tracks by his longstanding acoustic jazz trio and another six by the Experiment.
Taking Cannonball Adderley’s 1960s crossover gambits as his model, Mr. Glasper began to tailor the band’s approach. By 2012, when the Experiment released “Black Radio,” its first full-length, he was angling hard toward concision. “While we were playing solos, depending on how long our solos are or how many solos we’d take, I would watch people get on their iPhones,” Mr. Glasper remembered. It allowed him to craft a show that’s “enough for the jazz cats, but it’s also enough for the people who just want to come hear the radio hits.”
Indeed, the album had hits. Vocalists guested on almost every track, including Erykah Badu, Bilal, Mr. Bey and Jill Scott, and it featured some of Mr. Glasper’s most glamorous songwriting. Pondering the industry insiders who would be voting in each category, he chose to submit the album for Grammy consideration under R&B, rather than jazz. “I felt like the R&B world got it, and the jazz world didn’t,” he said.
Mr. Bey, also known as Mos Def, is one of many rappers who have collaborated with Mr. Glasper.Vincent Tullo for The New York Times
By nudging open the door between those spaces, he became a symbol of the hybrid energy already flowing between them. The big-ears ethic that has dominated jazz over the past 15 years — a desire to push into spaces said to be off-limits — applies to R&B as well. Kelela, Solange, the Internet and Frank Ocean are all examples; a few rungs down the ladder, there are hundreds more. And the jams where young jazz musicians hang out today are starting to look more like the Blue Note stage did last Sunday: a producer with a laptop open, a keyboardist manning a control station, an electrified rhythm section, a vocalist or two.
Mr. Glasper ended up winning the award for best R&B album, then took home another Grammy for “Black Radio 2,” an effort some found creatively disappointing that nonetheless helped cement his place in pop culture. He’s dreaming of a “Black Radio 3” with a slightly new conceit: featured producers, not vocalists, recorded without the Experiment.
At the beginning of the month, Mr. Glasper started his residency with a series of nights featuring just himself, Mr. Hodge and Mr. Dave, the original Experiment rhythm section. The trio played a mix of Herbie Hancock’s 1970s songbook, J. Dilla beats, Glasper originals and jazz standards, which he tended to render in their full form on the electric piano while the bass and drums held a stubborn pulse below. “A lot of people, when they do that, they play at the genres,” he said, speaking about blending styles. “I’ve literally played with the best people in each genre. And so I’ve learned from the best.”
You could say something just a little different about his piano playing. In his early trios, it was something to revel in, touched by a beautiful, eager desire, drawing on Mr. Corea, Mr. Hancock and Brad Mehldau. There was the slung-back sensibility of Dilla’s beatmaking and the shimmering glory of contemporary gospel. But over the years, he seems to have internalized more than just the musical DNA of the quiet storm and smooth-jazz records he also reveres: His piano playing is now haunted by their sense of emotional remove, too.
On acoustic albums like “Mood” (2004) and “Canvas” (2005), his original drummer Damion Reid made a barbed bed of crossing shapes under Mr. Glasper’s sparking flights. Chance was everywhere. By 2016, when the same band reconvened for the first time in years to tour and record a new album, “Covered,” it was missing.
But if Mr. Glasper has stepped into a new role as an ambassador and an architect, the role suits him. On Sunday, around the middle of their set together, Mr. Bey and Mr. Glasper welcomed a special guest: Talib Kweli, his longtime collaborator. The crowd felt a spark of bliss as the duo once known as Black Star skipped kinetically through the verses to “Thieves in the Night,” from their 1999 album. Mr. Glasper’s band played the pensive, swirling beat with a reverent gusto, and the two M.C.s tossed the song’s final phrase back and forth to each other: “Take the Black Star Line, right on home.”
His residency at the Blue Note continues through Oct. 28; bluenotejazz.com.