Jazz isn't dying—it's changing. And what's emerging is ruthlessly exciting and eclectic. This nascent jazz form, like many that preceded it, is a collage of styles—mixing acoustic improvisation with hip-hop themes, turntable sampling and even black-jazz forms from earlier decades. At the front of this movement is pianist Robert Glasper. As I wrote in the Wall Street Journal about a week (go here), Robert is fast becoming the Duke Ellington of jazz electronica.
Unlike many jazz musicians today, Robert has found a way to make jazz relevant without selling out, going overboard or making the music alien to traditionalists. On his last album—Double Booked—he split the disc between straight-up acoustic jazz and a new experimental form. On his latest CD—Black Radio (Blue Note)—Robert has devoted the entire disc to his new textured sound. For me, Black Radio is the most important jazz album of 2012—and a way forward for jazz.
In Part 1 of my two-part conversation with Robert, 33, the pianist, composer and arranger talks about his vision for jazz's future and why traditional jazz is having trouble gaining traction with younger audiences:
JazzWax: It’s dangerous leaving you a voicemail—a caller could wind up on your next album.
Robert Glasper: [Laughs] Exactly. And you’ll never know it until the album comes out. At first I thought you were talking about the fact that I’m horrible at picking up my messages, because I rarely check my machine.
JW: On Black Radio, you seem to be moving finally toward an fully eclectic, soul-electronic form. True?
RG: I think so. This was an idea I had for a while. With the kind of response we’ve received, it would be stupid not to keep it going. The album is opening a lot of doors. It's opening some ears. And it’s inspiring some younger cats. I definitely want to keep this experiment open. Plus it’s fun, especially working with other great artists. There are many artists I’ve worked with before who I want to work with on this concept—and artists I haven’t worked with before.
JW: We’re living in collage times—everything overlaps. Do you still view your music as an experiment or is it the future for sure?
RG: That’s kind of my main thing now. To be honest, no one really cares about piano trio albums anymore [laughs]. Don’t get me wrong, I love those albums to death. I listen to them. I’m a jazz pianist.
RG: But you can’t expect the masses to love the piano trio format. And if I like more than one type of music and bring them together in one form, that means I will have more than one audience. When you have more than one audience, it exposes them to all the stuff you’re doing. They’ll become fans, and they’ll check out my piano trio albums. This new concept is something I’m tapping into. It’s part of me. And it’s a natural transition.
JW: On Black Radio, did you wing it in the studio—hoping that magical things would happen? Or was everything carefully planned out?
RG: Black Radio wasn’t planned out carefully. That’s the magic of it. It was very loose. Many people who came to the studio didn’t know what they were going to sing. Others knew what they were going to sing—but I wound up changing the song the night before, and they didn’t know it until they got there.
JW: So it has an improvised spirit?
RG: Yes, that’s why the album has a jazz feel. It was formatted like a jazz record. We went into the studio and kind of hit it. So there’s definitely a freshness and edginess to it because we’re not doing the same stuff we’ve done for years.
JW: Even though the album goes off in a range of soul-chill directions, your acoustic piano is ever-present, presiding over all experimentation, yes?
RG: Exactly. And that was the point. I didn’t want to always have to take a piano solo to be heard. Piano solos don’t always fit on everything. And to be honest, solos turn some people off [laughs]. I wanted to strike a balance, always be there in the background.
JW: But it varies, which delights the ear.
RG: On some songs there’s a piano solo. On others, there isn’t. I just wanted to be sure that all of the songs were good—first and foremost. Everybody loves good songs. And that’s where we fall short in the jazz world today. We think there has to be a million solos on everything. But not everyone likes that.
JW: Have existing jazz styles become exhausted?
RG: I think they’ve run their course in terms of attracting a new audience. In my book, jazz legends are still stars. To me, you know. But I’m a jazz guy. I’m in that realm. To go outside of your realm and get new fans, it’s harder if you’re doing the same kind of music all the time. You have a better chance if you’re exploring new ground. This isn't about business. It's about art.
JW: Is the American Songbook holding jazz back—preventing it from developing?
RG: How so?
JW: You can’t play these standards over and over again and expect to attract a wider, thinking audience.
RG: I agree, you can’t. And the funny thing is, the people in the jazz community are holding themselves hostage with this thinking.
JW: It certainly puzzles me why so many artists think their new My Funny Valentine will top what's already out there.
RG: [Laughs] I don’t want to hear it again. Some people view this as disrespect, but the fact is I’m sick of it. I’ve been on the road for 16 or 17 year. I’ve played with jazz greats and played my share of standards. Now it’s time for a new standard. We can't do the old thing forever.
JW: Yet many jazz fans want musicians to do the same thing over and over again.
RG: You know, the cats that we look up to in the jazz world didn’t do this. They played modern music that they had just written. They played their friends’ songs that their friends wrote. They always played something that was modern and up-to-date. They were current. That’s all I'm trying to do now, without losing what makes jazz special and personal to the listener.
JW: What’s the recipe?
RG: If today’s jazz musicians mirrored today’s times—all of it—the way earlier jazz musicians did, jazz would be more relevant. And we’d be in the here and now rather than focusing on yesterday. Jazz also wouldn’t be viewed as historic music, you know? I don’t know why jazz stopped pushing for the new. Who said jazz is supposed to be about the past? Or that it’s supposed to stop at a particular point?
JW: There’s a lot of Roy Ayers [pictured], Doug and Jean Carn, and Gil Scott-Heron in your music. Who did I leave out?
RG: [Laughs] I played with Gil Scott-Heron. And Stevie. You’re totally right on the ball. But you can’t get that kind of thing across without the right band. My point about the music wouldn’t come across without Casey Benjamin [on vocoder, reeds and synthesizer], Derrick Hodge [on bass] and Chris Dave [on drums]. My campaign would not be heard without them.
RG: Because they grew up on the black jazz of the '70s that we’re tapping into on this album.
JW: But you didn’t—you were born in 1978.
RG: Right—but I was hearing it at home. My mom [singer Kim Yvette Glasper] played this music all the time when I was growing up in the 1980s and ‘90s. When I was 11 years old, my mother said, “Get your ass out of bed. If you want to be a musician, you have to come with me to see Earth Wind & Fire right now.” She knew what it took and what I needed to hear. She knew what I had to be around.
JazzWax clip: Here's The Robert Glasper Experiment's majestic take on Afro Blue from Black Radio, with Erykah Badu on vocal...