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The Corner of Jazz and Hip-Hop

Published: 2012-02-26
Robert Glasper A FEW tracks into “Black Radio," Robert Glasper Experiment's hazily soulful new album, there comes an accidental manifesto, culled from studio banter among the members of the band.

“People think of jazz musicians, they pigeonhole us," this collage begins, before moving on to complaints about the coarsening of musical standards, the sway of industry “bigwigs" and the dull complacency of popular taste. It's a pretty sour train of thought until this closing conviction: “The best thing you can do for people, I think, is just be honest, man." (And a grace note: “Yo, we've got to do something, man.")

“Black Radio," due out on Tuesday, is the fourth Blue Note release by Robert Glasper, a pianist who has spent the last decade or so building on a dual firmament of acoustic jazz, and artisanal hip-hop and R&B. It's the album he has been hinting at for years: an earnest confab with some of the artists in his network, like the politically minded rappers Lupe Fiasco and Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) and the vibe-oriented singers Erykah Badu, Meshell Ndegeocello, Musiq Soulchild and Chrisette Michele. Strikingly, given that each of its 12 tracks features at least one guest vocalist, the album unfolds as a coherent statement rather than an all-star mishmash: Robert Glasper and friends, not Robert Glasper and Friends.

Just as strikingly, “Black Radio" is the rare album of its kind that doesn't feel strained by compromise or plagued by problems of translation. It convincingly mirrors the texture and mood of contemporary black bohemia, largely because Mr. Glasper and his band—the bassist Derrick Hodge, the drummer Chris Dave and the saxophonist Casey Benjamin—are an integral part of that scene, with sideman credits that include not only the album's guest roster but also the likes of Maxwell, whose most recent arena tour had the Experiment's rhythm section at its core.

“There's been a lot of attempts at fusing jazz and hip-hop," said Don Was, the veteran record producer recently appointed president of Blue Note. “Many times you see the Scotch tape holding the two things together. And I think Robert's done it seamlessly. Because that's who he is."

Mr. Glasper, 33, has a strong but slouchy build and the garrulous, unselfconscious air of a guy accustomed to putting others at ease. Born and raised in Houston, he grew up playing in church and attended the same arts-intensive high school that has produced so many serious young jazz musicians, like Jason Moran, another forward-thinking pianist on Blue Note. (Mr. Dave went there too, as did Beyoncé.)

“It's totally natural. It's home," Mr. Glasper said of the new album's style during an interview that began at his upstairs apartment in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn. “I was playing that kind of stuff before I was playing jazz: R&B stuff, church vibe."

And while “Black Radio" takes cross-pollination to proud extremes—its early stretch finds Ms. Badu on a head-bobbing version of the jazz standard “Afro Blue," followed by Lalah Hathaway on a faithfully slinky cover of Sade's “Cherish the Day"—Mr. Glasper has been pursuing this agenda virtually from the start. “Mood," the 2003 debut that got him signed to Blue Note, features interludes and chord progressions reminiscent of hip-hop production; it also features Bilal, the eclectic soul singer whom Mr. Glasper had met during their freshman orientation at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music.


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