Photo by Don Q Hannah, courtesy of Robert Glasper
It's been a good year for jazz reaching into the mainstream: Releases like Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, Ghostface Killah’s recent collaboration Sour Soul with Toronto jazz trio BadBadNotGood, and Chance the Rapper's Surf with Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment have made jazz more prominent in hip-hop than it's been in years. Influential electronic label Brainfeeder has brought in new fans and championed a jazz renaissance with jazz-oriented and pure jazz albums by Flying Lotus, Thundercat, and Kamasi Washington.
Jazz has always been and will forever be. But it owes its recent resurgence in popular music to a few key players, and pianist Robert Glasper is one of the most important. Glasper has served as an ambassador for jazz in hip-hop (and hip-hop in jazz). You’ve surely heard his work on one of your favorite albums, as he's collaborated with the likes of Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Erykah Badu, Jay Z, and J Dilla, to name a few. He's also developed an impressive resume on his own terms.
After winning two Grammys for his performances as The Robert Glasper Experiment with his albums Black Radio (Best R&B Album) and Black Radio 2 (Best Traditional R&B Performance), he's returned to a traditional jazz trio format with upright bass player Vicente Archer and drummer Damion Reid on his new album Covered. The trio take on songs by popular artists like Radiohead, Jhene Aiko, and John Legend, turning already great music into powerful, moving, and expressive live performances. One stand out is a take on Joni Mitchell’s “Barangrill,” which recasts the folk singer's iconic voice as a complex, colorful, and fulfilling instrumental experience, and which Noisey is excited to premiere the live video for below.
I recently met Glasper at the legendary Blue Note jazz club in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village on the last night of his weeklong residency. I came into the green room as he was sneaking in a quick meal between sets and was intimidated at first. It felt like I was crashing a party that I wasn't cool enough to be attending, and everyone in the room, even his six-year-old son, knew it: We were sitting in a room that has been inhabited by the likes of Ray Charles, Dizzy Gillespie, and Dave Brubeck. But Glasper’s demeanor is, much like his playing style, laid-back and welcoming.
Noisey: We’ll start with that Kendrick album. What were those sessions like?
Robert Glasper: I was out in LA doing Covered,and Terrace Martin hit me up that afternoon. We finished Covered in two nights, so the last night I went over to Dr. Dre’s studio. Kendrick's there with a few other producers and Terrace. They pulled up the song, “For Free?” So the funny part about it is I went from my session, which I didn’t do any swing, to a hip hop session completely swinging. That was the first song I did. Then after that Kendrick’s like “ah man”: He was like on the floor by my playing. He had never seen me play in person. So he was like “Yo pull up ‘Complexion’ you hear anything on this?” And Thundercat was there too, so Thundercat came and showed me the changes, and I was like “all right, hit it!” and I did a take—just one take.
Just one take?
All the way through. After the tape stopped I just kept playing, and I started to kind of do a little bitty re-harmonization and just kept playing. So Kendrick got hype when I did that, and he was like “oh I’ll bring in some different drums and do another verse over it,” but he got Rapsody to do that. All that just because I kept playing. And then he just kept on adding songs like “pull up so and so! Pull up so and so!” I literally did the whole album in one session.
You covered Kendrick's song “Sing For Me I’m Dying of Thirst,” but it had those samples laid over it, and that totally flipped the script.
Oh that was my kid, Riley and his friends. I had them speak the names of all the—you know.
What made you want to go in that direction toward the end of the album?
Because I like my albums to document a time period, and this time period—there’s so much shit happening right now, and you can't ignore it. And I'm not much of a talker. I'm not going to be on a panel talking. I can express myself, I can express what's happening and how I feel through music, and I feel like it will heal. So many people are hurting, and music is like the number one medicine across the world. It’s documenting your period in time. Like Marvin Gaye, or Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin—you can listen back to their albums and know what was going on in that time period.
One of the standouts on the album for me is Jhene Aiko’s “The Worst,” but that’s a pop song.
It's a pop song. Actually my niece said I should do that. I wanted to do a song that was popular at the time, a song that got on people's nerves. Like you heard it so much it got on your nerves. I wanted there to be a song where people look at it and go, “What?? You did that?!” but when they hear it it's like “Yo this is dope!” So when my niece said “The Worst” I was like oh that’s perfect actually. 'Cause when it would come on I actually like that tune. It's a good tune!
What made you want to do a covers album in general?
I wanted to do something different trio style that I’ve never done. I want to say something, and I want it to be something I didn’t do before. And so I'm going to do piano trio, but I never did it live so I’m going to do it live. Coming from all my Black Radio success with the mainstream stuff I didn’t want to totally lose that audience by doing a bunch of jazz songs and just jazzing it up right away. It’s a jazz album they can digest. And they can actually listen to it. 'Cause a lot of jazz albums scare people away. They don’t even get the chance to hear it. Jazz is so scarce and unheard that you don’t even get a chance to accidentally bump into it, and if you do it's some random station that’s playing something from 1945, and there's no connection there at all. And everybody thinks that’s what jazz sounds like, and they have no other outlet to let you hear modern jazz or what cats are doing. It's a secret society, you have to know where to go.
I mean me personally when I heard the Kendrick album I was like “this is jazz; this is a jazz album.”
Yeah, totally. I mean there's so much jazz on it. Kendrick’s a very off-the-cuff, improvising kinda cat. So the way it happened was very jazz. Super natural, super organic, the way it all happened.
Who do you think really started to cut jazz and put it into hip-hop?
Q-Tip, A Tribe Called Quest. I would say he was the one that did it on the scale that was huge enough to really make a difference. He might not be the actual person to do it first, but he was the person that when they did it, it made a huge impact. That’s what got me into hip-hop when I was in high school because I heard “Red Clay” in “Sucka Nigga,” and when I heard that I was like “oh shoot I know this song! It's 'Red Clay!'” And that’s what attracted me to A Tribe Called Quest. I didn’t know half of what they were talking about. But I knew the beat, I knew that sample, I knew the Minnie Riperton sample on “Lyrics To Go.”
Photo by John Rogers, courtesy of Robert Glasper
I was surprised that “Dillalude #3” wasn’t on Covered.
I leaked it first, on his birthday. It's on a Japanese release. I mean I got a chance to go to Dilla’s crib and work with him for two weeks in his basement.
What did you guys work on?
Bilal’s first record, called 1st Born Second. They flew us to Detroit to work with Dilla.
What was it like working with him?
It was great. Watching a fucking magician. He made beats so fast, and he had so many records, and he knew exactly where every record was, so he would get an idea and go right to a record. I watched him make a bass line out of three records. Three different records made one bass line. He put it together and made this song called “Reminisce” for Bilal’s record. We put it together, and we watched him do it. It took him 15 minutes. He needed a piano line, and I watched him go grab the record to get the piano line.
He just had a wall of records?
A wall?! No, he had like a fucking cellar of records in a maze.
And he knew it all?
So when he heard something he’d be like “I’ll be right back” and go grab something?
He’d go “wooo.” He didn’t talk a lot. That was his thing, man. Would drive around all day listening to his beats. He made beats and then would listen to them in the car. He felt music was made for the car. During that time that’s when everybody listened to music the most, in their car. He even mixed it like that. The place where he mixed records, the console where he mixed and his car, were like damn there right next to each other. He would do a mix, put it on CD, go to the car, listen to it. Come back. That was his reference. He would make beats that day, and we would go straight to the strip club that night, and he’d give the beat straight to the DJs. And they’d play it.
Looking forward, do you think you're going to release a straight-ahead originals jazz album?
Not at the moment. I'm not in that place at the moment. I'm not in that particular place because I did that for years. I did that for ten years, play straight ahead jazz tunes my way. I like where I’m at doing these kinds of songs. I feel like I'm bridging the gap. 'Cause there's just no reference. Getting a 20 year-old to like jazz, it's hard— it's damn near impossible. I think about it all the time. It's like trying to convince your grandmother to listen to Lil Wayne and like it. Literally the same thing. I just like to switch it around 'cause it makes people really believe. Think about it! Because your grandmother has no reference of Lil Wayne. She comes from a whole other era! She doesn’t know what's happening! When she hears that she’s like “What!?” but we’ll be like “Oh, we get it.” So it's the same thing. Parents will be like “We get it.” But the 20 year-olds, they don’t get that. They don’t grow up in an era with original jazz music.
Pat Shahabian is only on the internet so he can talk about jazz. Follow him on Twitter.