Photos by Juan Patino
“Don’t be alarmed… Robert is under the piano,” the text message from Blue Note Records read. Minutes later, I would arrive at the new Steinway Hall in New York City to find famed keyboardist Robert Glasper smiling on the floor below a nine-foot concert grand for a photo shoot. The joke wasn’t lost on me. Glasper has always looked at music differently!
Since bursting onto the jazz scene as a leader back in the early 2000s, Glasper has carved out an ever-changing musical career. Whether he’s playing acoustic piano-jazz with his Robert Glasper Trio or digging deep into electrified hip-hop and R&B, as he did on the Robert Glasper Experiment’s Black Radio (2012) and Black Radio 2 (2013), Glasper is an ever-fearless musician who challenges convention at every turn. Now with the release of ArtScience, the new album by the Experiment, he continues his recorded investigation into the art of collective groove.
Glasper eventually made his way out from under the piano to talk with me about his continued quest for musical mastery.
I read a quote recently by the saxophonist Kamasi Washington where he said, “We’ve now got a whole generation of jazz musicians who have been brought up with hip-hop. We’ve grown up alongside rappers and DJs… and we are as fluent in J Dilla and Dr. Dre as we are in Mingus and Coltrane.” I immediately thought of how you were one of the first jazz artists to bend bebop and hip-hop into a sound of your own. Can you talk about how you came to jazz, how you came to hip-hop, and how you came to combine them?
I came to jazz because my mother was a jazz singer, amongst other genres. She sang jazz, R&B, funk, gospel, Broadway, folk, and pop. Literally every day of the week, she had a different kind of gig. Her favorite singer was Ella Fitzgerald, and she always played her and a lot of other jazz in our house in Houston, Texas. I started loving the music of Oscar Peterson because of the recordings my mother played. She would also rehearse her band in our garage, and I would watch her piano player Alan Moseley and ask him questions afterwards. He would sit down and show me all of his “hip” voicings.
How old were you at that time?
I was probably 12 years old.
Did you already have a good foundation in music at that point? Were you taking piano lessons?
No. When I was 11, I was literally playing with one finger and learning songs off of the radio! But I learn fast, so within two years, I was playing chords. I learned on my own, but my mom was also showing me stuff. She wasn’t a “piano player’s piano player,” but she could accompany herself singing. Then Alan hipped me to Chick Corea, so I got this one [cassette] tape of his called Akoustic Band Live. That was my first real jazz tape.
And I wore it out!
Fast forward to 1994 when I was a freshman in high school. I would drop my mom off at her gig, and she would let me keep the car, but I would have to go pick her up at around two o’clock in the morning. And she would always make me play a “standard” with her while she sang. Things like, “There Will Never Be Another You,” “Perdido,” “Body and Soul,” and a few other ones she liked to play duo. The bartender at that place told my mother he knew a professor at the High School for the Performing Arts in Houston, and that I should go audition there. So they hooked it up, and I auditioned and got in. That’s where the jazz thing really took off for me. I studied jazz theory, jazz harmony, jazz combo, and big band. That’s where [jazz pianist] Jason Moran and a bunch of other great musicians went as well.