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.
Besides Chick Corea, what other jazz pianists were you listening to at that time?
I was all about Chick, Keith Jarrett, and Oscar Peterson. Then a little later in high school, I started checking out McCoy Tyner. Those were pretty much my guys—those four.
Fast forward to when I got a full scholarship to come to New York to study at the New School in the fall of 1997. This was the very beginning of the “Neo Soul” movement, where a lot of guys from New York and Philadelphia were combining and coming together and doing jam sessions in New York with The Roots, Common, Erykah Badu, and other rising artists. This whole genre was happening. I met my friend the singer Bilal at the New School, and on the very first day, he told me, “Come to these jam session with me!” And it was there he introduced me to all these people he knew from Philadelphia, like [Roots drummer] Questlove. I was his “jazz friend,” and that’s what everyone called me. [Laughs.] So I would sit in with the Roots at these sessions. That was pretty much my first time playing hip-hop stuff. I had never done that before.
Because you were concentrating primarily on acoustic jazz?
Yeah, exactly. I also grew-up playing in church, so I was like the “gospel/jazz guy.” When I was 11 years old, my mother would let me play the old broken organ in our church while she was playing piano as musical director. And in three years, I was playing the service with her. All from playing by ear.
Pretty soon after getting to New York and playing those jam sessions, Questlove started calling me to play shows with the Roots. At the same time, I was still in college and my friend Bilal had gotten signed to a record deal during our sophomore year at school. I was his musical director, so I was going on tours with him. I was also playing with [jazz trumpeter] Roy Hargrove and [jazz bassist] Christian McBride.
Was this all on piano?
Yes, except with Roy Hargrove I was playing Rhodes, because it was for his RH Factor tour.
Had you had a lot of experience playing Rhodes up until that point?
I might have played a Rhodes once or twice before then, but I’ll tell you how unfamiliar I was with it. My band director tried to give me one in high school, and I said “No.” [Laughs.] Somebody had called the school saying, “Hey, we have this old Rhodes in our attic and we want to give it to a student.” So my band director called me and said, “Robert, do you want a Rhodes?” And I said, “What is that?” He replied, “It’s like a keyboard.” And I said, “Mmmm, I’m good.” I beat myself up to this day for that. It was a suitcase [model] too!
In college I did get a stage model Rhodes. I got it really cheap and I used to carry it around for gigs. I had a dolly and I could maneuver onto the subway. But I still have back problems to this day because of it! Back then I lived in a three-story brownstone, and my landlord wouldn’t really allow me to leave it downstairs. I’d say, “Can I please just leave it downstairs for a few days,” and he’d say, “It’s taking up too much room!” So I’d have to take it up three flights of stairs.
While you were playing those early hip-hop gigs, were you thinking about combining it with jazz?
Not yet. I used to play hip hop-esque stuff with my band in high school, because the drummer and bass player also played in church with me. We did little hip-hop things, but we didn’t really know what we were doing. The funny thing is that bass player Mark Kelley is now the bass player in the Roots. I realized how to really play hip-hop when I got with Questlove and the Roots—especially the [J] Dilla school of hip-hop, because it’s a whole different vibe. Once I got with those guys, I was learning all of that “behind the beat” stuff onstage at jam sessions, playing with the Roots while Mos Def, Common, and Talib Kweli were coming up to rhyme. I was also watching people like James Poyser and Jun[ius Bervine] play. Those guys were how I learned how to play hip-hop and soul. I couldn’t wait to watch them sound-check with Common and D’Angelo.
I was also playing a lot of hip-hop with Bilal, and I was his musical director from 1999 to 2007. Then I became Mos Def’s music director. I also used to do these trio shows at a spot called the Up Over Jazz Café in Brooklyn, New York, with just me and my trio every Thursday. I also had a “hip-hop meets jazz” night every Wednesday with my trio. It was a jam session where I would literally hold a microphone up for singers and rappers to sit-in while my trio and I played grooves. The rule was you weren’t allowed to call songs: You had to just go with the vibe. People like Q-Tip, Common, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad from A Tribe Called Quest would come by and vibe with us. So it was a mixture of me playing with the Roots, Mos Def, Bilal, plus all of the jazz gigs. I was doing both things at a high level.
I remember in 2004, you made a record called Mood for the Spanish label Fresh Sound/New Talent. Even though it was considered a “straight-ahead” jazz album, you were already hinting at, in the words of Ornette Coleman, “the shape of jazz to come.” It had twisting meters, adventurous harmonies and backbeat-infused grooves. You seemed to have a sense of your sound early on.
That was because I had become a big fan of A Tribe Called Quest during my junior year in high school. In 1999, I met Dilla and got a chance to go to his house and jam with him while he played the [Akai] MPC. So I became a big fan of his band Slum Village. I was a big fan of hip-hop albums because they always had these little interludes. There would be 30 seconds of a beat and you’d be like, “What is that?” I loved that stuff, so I brought it to the jazz format. Jazz musicians weren’t doing that. I always felt that the average jazz album was kind of boring in the way it was made. It was like, “Here are 12 songs.” They weren’t trying to be funny or make it an experience. I remember my mom playing me Earth, Wind & Fire albums and they had dope interludes. I wanted to bring that into the jazz world. I never thought, “This is going to be my sound,” or “What can make me be different?”
I have musical ADD, and I get bored. My thing is, [jazz standard] “Alone Together” has been played a million times. On my album Mood, we played it but it wasn’t planned. We just went into it. But normally when I think of playing a standard or another song that’s been done a lot, I’m like, “Do we need another version that’s not interesting?” I feel like you need to either do something totally different to it, or leave it alone and don’t do it at all. You have to investigate a way to make it yours.
You were looking for something beyond what other people were doing.
Exactly. I was just hungry for something different because I felt that jazz could be more colorful. There could be more stuff in there. So I was trying to figure out ways to make my records more exciting.
I was at a party with Herbie Hancock years ago and he was talking about the exact same thing. He said to me, “Why do we have to play this music the exact same way we’ve been doing it for 40 years?”
Herbie always thought like that. And he still does to this day. He made “Rockit” when he was 40! I’m co-producing his new album along with Terrace Martin. It’s incredible, and he’s so open and about change. “We did this already. Let’s do something different.” That’s the mind frame that most innovators have. People that aren’t innovators are okay with just being complacent and reflecting the scene. There are a lot of great players in the world, but there are very few visionaries who have a concept that can actually change the sound and path of music.
Speaking of Herbie, many of your albums have nods both stylistically and cover-wise to him. Was he one of the people that influenced you to start digging into the Rhodes?
Yes, because when I went to J Dilla’s house in 1999, he hipped me to an album of Herbie’s called Sunlight. I’ll never forget that. J Dilla sampled a lot of stuff from that album, and when he played those things for me I was like, “Oh, God!” It just sounds so good. And that really made me want to play Rhodes. Herbie has the best Rhodes sound of anybody.
Often times, pianists cite either Chick Corea or Herbie Hancock as their influences. But I can hear both of them in your playing.
Right. Well, the funny thing is, when I was growing up playing in church, if the musicians knew any jazz, it was [Chick Corea’s composition] “Spain.” So Chick was a big influence in church. And I got into Herbie in college. I’m glad I got into Herbie later, because I feel like if I had gotten into him earlier I would be more of a clone. Right now, you can tell there’s an influence, but I don’t necessarily sound like him. Last year, my band opened up for Chick and Herbie in Korea. And when Herbie came off the stage, he said to me, “Man, I love what you do on Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp a Butterfly.” And he was going into all these details about the album. He’s almost 80! That’s so awesome.
I read a quote by you recently in a UK newspaper where you said, “There’s a tendency for the old guard to sneer at hip-hop... but jazz can learn so much from hip-hop. You have to use repetition, you have to play sounds that cut through. Sometimes that can be even more difficult than the most complicated improvisation.”
I genuinely love space. And not many jazz musicians do. They love to fill space. But I love to let there be space, because space speaks volumes. When I play hip-hop, for instance, I’m literally trying to mimic the sample. And that’s hard to do. Having the discipline to repeat something the same exact way on the same exact beat—even if it’s off—is really hard to do. And doing it evokes a certain feeling, a mantra, a prayer; the repetition is very African. I love that and I feed off leaving space where it needs to be. I also think people respect the space I leave because they know I can fill it up; because I have the technique to do that, too.
I used to do this thing with the drummer Chris Dave when he lived with me, where the Rhodes and the drums were set up in the middle of the living room. We would sit down and play one groove for an hour without stopping or improvising over it. One time we did it for two hours. I remember looking at my watch and saying, “Dude, we just played that groove for a whole movie!” [Laughs.] That’s how cats practice Latin music, too. I remember [late Sting pianist] Kenny Kirkland talking about that when he was learning montunos, saying that he would record himself playing them for hours and then turn the tape over, just to learn that groove. I feel like that’s a lost art in a way.
Let’s talk about ArtScience, the new album with the Robert Glasper Experiment. If you were to distill what you and your band are all about in just a few sentences, how would you describe it?
I’ve never said this before in my life, but it’s like the Golden State Warriors. Or the [San Antonio] Spurs. Meaning, a team that is so good as a team. With the Experiment, we’re a great team because everybody is equally as good as each other. Everybody in that band is unselfish and versatile.
The album opener “This Is Not Fear” is a pretty accurate snapshot of what listeners are in for. A searing jazz quartet suddenly morphs into a backbeat-infused, synth-laden, spoken-word, hip-hop, Rhodes-washed interlude featuring band introductions and applause. It’s like we’re getting an entire live concert in three minutes!
I’ve never heard a record that had straight-ahead jazz, hip-hop, Trap and disco music played to that level, by one band. When I do hear people try to do that, you can hear the weak links. You can hear what they are and aren’t good at. My idea was that I wanted to “bookmark” the album with jazz, because I feel that all of the genres of music we’re playing were birthed from jazz. Now we’re getting love from hip-hop cats who want to rhyme over “This Is Not Fear,” and Jimmy Jam recently Tweeted me that he loved our version of his song “Human.” So I feel like we successfully covered a lot of genres.
Your song “Thinkin Bout You” reminded me of some cuts off of Herbie Hancock’s album Mr. Hands. There are lots of retro analog-synth stabs on this one. What kind of keyboards did you use on that track?
I used a Roland Juno and Minimoog. I wanted to do a song with a Trap beat to it, because Trap is really in right now. I grew up with Trap because I’m from the South. It was always around when I was younger, but it had never crossed over into the rest of the United States until southern rap got popular, with people like Lil Wayne. It’s right at home for me. I was listening to Trap before I was listening to Chick Corea!
You did a lot of co-writing within the group this time around. Was the idea to bring everyone into the creative process with equal weight?
Exactly. I produced all of my other albums, but here I wanted to give everyone a chance to do it and also make them write. I’m always the advocate for people writing in the band. This record sounds like something I didn’t produce on my own. And I’m happy about that. It sounds like all of us.
Herbie Hancock’s tune “Tell Me a Bedtime Story” gets your signature treatment here, with a shifting drum track, vocoder-ized vocals, reharmonizations and a swirling, processed Rhodes. What do you look for in a Rhodes piano?
I don’t like the “bell” sounding Rhodes. I like the buttery, smooth ones. At home, I still have the stage model I used to lug around New York City to gigs. I also have a Vintage Vibe electric piano that I love. It’s portable like a Wurlitzer.
What is it about Steinway pianos that made you want to join their artist roster?
I love the feel of them, and the fact that they are handmade. And I love the integrity of them—that it takes a year to make them. They record really well, too.
You recently composed the music to Miles Ahead, the acclaimed film about Miles Davis. Is that something you want to do more of?
Now, yes. Because before that, people would always tell me, “Your music lends itself to film scoring.” And I was like, “Okay.” But then when Don Cheadle hit me out of the blue to score this movie, it was eye-opening. I was scared and happy at the same time, because this is the music of Miles Davis. I knew every musician was going to be watching and listening and critiquing this movie.
How did you approach getting inside of Miles’ music?
The thing about that movie was there were different periods that I had to conquer. There are a lot of flashbacks in it, so there were times I had to capture different bands, like the 1958 band with Cannonball [Adderly] and Coltrane. I know so many musicians that I knew who to get— [people] who can really sound like the original guys. I used different bands for different eras in the movie. And sometimes I had to write songs that were in the particular style of Miles’ music. It brought me back to when I was first checking out his records. I still have those records: I just had to go take them out.
Did you have everything written out?
Yeah. I mean, some stuff wasn’t that involved, like if I needed 15 seconds of music for a scene where Miles was walking out of a club. Then I’d have to write a Bossa [Nova] that sounded like something from 1962. Now that I got my feet wet, I definitely want to do more [scoring work]. In fact, I just did some stuff for the soundtrack to Barbershop 3. Stanley Clarke scored it, but I was the featured artist on it, so I played and got to interpret everything.
What’s next on the musical horizon for you?
I’m a few years ahead already, but I don’t know which one of the ideas I have is coming next. I always wait to see what the musical climate needs at the time. Before I put a record out, I try to say, “What do I think would do well in this climate?” Instead of just saying, “This is how I feel, so I’m gonna put a record out. Here are another 12 songs with no concept.” [Laughs.]
What would you tell a young musician who wants to have a career like the one you continue to forge for yourself?
I would say that I think the reason that my band is successful is that we took the training that we had very seriously. A lot of cats say they want to play their “Glasper” stuff, but they can’t really sit down and play a standard. They don’t have the amount of chops, harmony and understanding, so they skip to the hip-hop part. So I feel like people should be as authentic as they can in each genre. That’s what keeps me working. If I didn’t have my own career, I’d be playing three or four different genres of music on tour with other people. You have to be able to do that now to make a living. It’s about studying your craft and your instrument, and taking it seriously.