Robert Glasper - No going back to the future

Robert Glasper has seen the future of jazz and, he says, it doesn’t lie in the past.

The Houston, Texas-born pianist who signed to the iconic jazz label Blue Note Records in 2004 reckons that jazz is undergoing a resurgence right now but it needs to work harder and look outside of itself more to maintain interest.

Not for Glasper the idea of jazz being a music preserved in aspic, reflecting a time in the 1960s, the 1950s, or even earlier, and appealing only to people who either remember or have tuned into these eras.

"I want to reach the average person," he says. "I get young people coming up to me after a gig, saying ‘I don’t have a single jazz CD on my iPod. I didn’t even know that jazz could sound like what you’re playing but I like it.’ And these people come back. If you only play with a 1960s or a 1950s vibe, you only get people who have latched onto that vibe - or jazz fans. We need to expand the audience and stop making jazz so mysterious, a form of music that people don’t even want to try."

Glasper’s philosophy is to acknowledge the great musicians who have gone before but also to respond to what’s going on around him. There’s a good example of this delivered in instalments on his two Blue Note albums.

On the first, Canvas, Glasper recorded a version of Herbie Hancock’s classic 1960s composition Maiden Voyage that hinted at something from more recent times. Two years on, in the very natural sounding, flowing medley that graces his In My Element CD, Maiden Voyage had become almost subordinate to that newer song, Radiohead’s Everything in its Right Place.

"That’s my point," he says. "And actually by doing that, I’m not being exactly revolutionary. Jazz musicians have always adopted and adapted the pop songs of the day. It’s just that for me to play some show tune from way before I was born doesn’t feel right and it’s not as if there’s no great new tunes being written or nothing of interest happening in other genres."

Thirty year old Glasper certainly couldn’t be accused of having narrow musical interests. Just from keeping up with family, friends and an old school classmate, Beyonce Knowles, he would know what’s cooking on the pop, soul and hip-hop scenes. R&B chart-topper LeToya Luckett is Glasper’s cousin and Q-Tip (who phones in a suggestion on In My Element), Talib Kweli and Jay-Z are good pals. Glasper has also played piano for Erykah Badu, written horn arrangements for Common and is musical director for Mos Def.

But then, he’s always had catholic taste. It runs in the family. His mother, Kim Yvette Glasper-Dobbs, who was murdered alongside her second husband in 2006, was a gospel singer and pianist who could turn her hand to country and western gigs, Broadway shows, jazz songs and Top-40 pop music.

Glasper was brought up in the church and by his early teens he was playing piano at his local Baptist, Catholic and Seventh Day Adventist churches, directing choirs and accompanying gospel singers.

"There was always a piano at home, because my mother played, and I used to mess around on it until I was about twelve," he says. "That’s when I got serious and started listening to things properly, checking everything out. The church certainly affects your playing. People will be crying and hollering, and you have to provide a soundtrack to that. You learn how to connect to people. But I always say that whatever I listen to makes me sound the way I sound – and whatever I don’t listen to makes me sound the way I sound too. What goes in through your ears comes out through your fingers."

If In My Element was part of the grieving process for Glasper – the track Tribute includes the Reverend Joe Ratliff’s raw, moving eulogy to Glasper’s mother – it was also a demonstration of how subtly the hip-hop influence can be introduced into jazz. Glasper almost audibly shudders when talking about the kind of jazz and hip-hop fusion where someone works the decks while a jazz band blows or a jazz drummer tries to play a funk beat and fails miserably.

"I’m not setting myself up as a hip-hop pianist – I’m happy to play that and soul too, but it’s jazz where I’m most comfortable and most able to express myself," he says. "I also don’t want to make a big thing about mixing up genres. Because the point is that it’s okay to do these things and you can do them naturally. There are times on the bandstand when I’ll play something and our drummer will respond by locking into a groove and it becomes quite hypnotic. But we don’t plan that in advance."

Indeed, very little of a Glasper concert is pre-planned. Once tunes and their chord sequences have been rehearsed and committed to memory, they become free spirits.

"I’d say 80%, maybe 90% of the time, my bass player and drummer play what they want to play," says Glasper. "I hired them because I trust them and I admire their ability to create, and I like to be inspired and surprised onstage too. I don’t want to walk out there knowing exactly what’s going to happen and I don’t think people want to go and hear a gig where they know just how things are going to turn out either. It’s like a basketball game. If the Rockets played exactly the same game five times, I wouldn’t want to go and watch that."

To those who fear that jazz musicians leave just a bit too much to chance, Glasper has words of reassurance. He too has left jazz concerts where he felt that the musicians were having a competition to see who could play fastest and realised afterwards that he couldn’t remember a single melody that was played.

"That’s not what we do," he says, "and one of the reasons why Radiohead lend themselves so well to jazz is that they write really nice chord changes and while they use some weird time signatures, they have a way of sneaking in something complex without you realising it. Because they write such beautiful melodies. Good jazz has the power to do all of those things and while I want to create art – it’s like we’re doing a painting in the moment - what I want to leave the audience with especially is good tunes that they can go home singing."


From The Herald, March 27, 2008.

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