prior to his 2015
Montreal International Jazz Festival concert, pianist
Robert Glasper released Covered, which, as the title
suggests covers some of his favourite songwriters, among them
Joni Mitchell, Radiohead and John Legend. “Keeping it
simple,” is his new mantra, and if the capacity crowd
at the Monument National concert was any indication (with a
little help from hip-hop and groove), he’s won over a
ton and a half of new fans, while jazz purists are looking elsewhere
for the music he used to supply so superbly and inventively.
On this A-major paradigm shift, and referencing John Coltrane
and his late-career preference for "the simpler,"
he was interviewed by Jacob Blickenstaff.
BLICKENSTAFF: After two well-received Black Radio albums,
you're going back to piano trio format. What's new this time around?
GLASPER: I've acquired a new audience. Around 2009, my audience
started getting a lot more mainstream; younger people, R&B
and hip-hop fans, mixed in with the jazz audience. Since those
two albums, my audience has grown a lot bigger. I didn't want
to just go back to doing straight-up jazz standards or trio songs.
We purposely did cover songs to make everyone happy. And it makes
me happy too. The kind of "jazz way" is just doing another
album the same way with different songs. But I like to wait until
I have a nice concept. Now I have another avenue that I can go
down, that I have to go down, because of the audience I've acquired.
there any common element to the songs on Covered?
my friends were listening to hip-hop or R&B, I was in the
crib listening to Billy Joel and Michael Bolton, Luther Vandross,
and Oscar Peterson."
do they come from then?
GLASPER: I wanted to do a mix of old songs that I love and some
new songs that I love to keep it modern. I'm pretty eclectic,
so that's why I was like, Joni Mitchell, Kendrick Lamar, Radiohead,
Musiq Soulchild, Jhené Aiko—I love that! That's literally
what my iPod looks like.
past interviews, you've talked about using personal honesty—about
the music you like and who you are—to navigate between genres
and move your career forward. Where does that come from?
GLASPER: It came from my mother. She passed away in 2004. She
was a singer, and literally, every day of the week she sang at
a different club in a different genre of music: country, R&B
clubs, jazz clubs, church on Sunday morning where she was the
music director, pop hits, soft rock, she loved Broadway, Liza
Minelli. I grew up listening to all this music, so it was never
one thing for me. When my friends were listening to hip-hop or
R&B, I was in the crib listening to Billy Joel and Michael
Bolton, Luther Vandross, and Oscar Peterson. And she was always,
"Yes, that's who you are. It's everything." So I got
that confidence to stick with that and not be ashamed of it from
you play a place like the Village Vanguard, which is a shrine
to jazz, especially to jazz trios, do you find there's still new
territory to explore?
GLASPER: What I'm doing now is kind of open territory. I don't
feel like it's really been done the way that I'm doing it without
it being smooth jazz. I think I'm walking a pretty fine line.
There are a few specific things that I pay attention to that if
you don't, you're gonna be in the smooth jazz lane.
GLASPER: When it came to the Experiment band, it was the amount
of solos you take. Once I started getting mainstream people to
my shows, I realized we were taking too many solos, and they were
too long. I started gauging when people were going on their iPhones.
So we narrowed it down. Over the course of the whole night Casey
Benjamin and I might only take one, maybe another in the encore.
But we're improvising at the same time, we're grooving, and peoples'
heads are nodding, so you leave full. It's just enough soloing
for the mainstream person to be enlightened by that, but it's
not beating them over the head.
Adderley said, 'First 20 minutes we'll jazz out, then the last
hour it's gonna be songs that people paid to see.' Which is why
he was driving a Rolls."
of times, jazz musicians try to educate people. What other genre
does that? When Cannonball Adderley did shows, he said, "First
20 minutes we'll jazz out, then the last hour it's gonna be songs
that people paid to see." Which is why he was driving a Rolls-Royce
and everybody else was driving whatever. Miles Davis, too. I asked
Herbie Hancock a few days ago, "When I hear bootlegs of Miles
Davis with the '60s Quintet, I never hear like, "Pinocchio,"
or "Fall," or "Nefertiti," or any of those
dope songs that y'all recorded. Why not?" Herbie said, "Miles
wanted to play songs that people knew." Jazz was struggling
back then, too. But people knew standards. So that's why they
were going to play "Autumn Leaves."
the trio and the Experiment, is there a third approach you have
GLASPER: I'm gonna do a gospel record, Black Radio-style,
kind of. I grew up in church. That's how most young African-American
musicians learn how to perform. You could be six years old and
playing organ or drums in front of thousands or hundreds of people.
You're performing every week. People don't think about it like
that, but that's what it is. You're in charge of emotion, and
bringing certain things to fruition, and bringing all the spirit
in. And it's a real thing. I was playing drums in church when
I was six. Then I picked up the piano when I was 11 or 12. A lot
of the mainstream R&B people or hip-hop or whatever, the whole
urban world, are from the church. So this would be an album that
everyone would love.
JB: Both in your trio and the Experiment, I hear a central element
of repetition, similar to a sample or loop. Is there a feeling
you get from that; is it something hypnotic?
GLASPER: That's exactly what it is. I think there's beauty in
repetition. And that's part of my culture and African culture
as well: repeated things, mantra. It's spiritual, it's meditation,
it's Buddhism, it's praying, it's all these things. It's the repetitive
thing that brings space. That's one of the things I love secretly
about hip-hop. Jazz doesn't have that element. It changes every
bar, nothing is ever the same. Most jazz musicians get off on
making it different every time. But that approach is not as spiritual.
Coltrane would stay on one chord, and you'd keep hearing that
one sound, over and over. He would play all kinds of stuff over
it, but you just hear this one chord.
Coltrane got more advanced, his music became simpler.
I was a singer who won those Grammys, I'd be gracing all the magazine
covers... I barely got asked to do an interview."
GLASPER: Exactly. It became more about spirituality versus how
many chord changes you can play over. That's one of the things
that I think a lot of people like about hip-hop, but they don't
even realize. Normally hip-hop repeats every four bars—it's
a very small chunk. And it's about the head nod. I almost feel
like it's like full circle when I play with my trio. A lot of
the origins of hip-hop are the sampling of jazz records, especially
jazz trios. So I think, "Let's mimic the producer who is
sampling the jazz trio." You see people close their eyes,
and it takes them to another place. I almost think of it like
we're supplying the house, and the listener can move their own
furniture in. Whatever you're going through, we're the soundtrack
to your thoughts, and we'll just leave space for you to move your
shit in. I think people leave my shows feeling good. Instead of
hearing, "Oh, he's good," I'd rather hear, "Wow,
you changed my feelings today, you made me feel different."
hard for you?
GLASPER: The hard part is balancing. I have a family, a five-year-old
son—you know, life. That is probably the hardest part. The
music is not hard to me. What is hard also is getting the respect
of the mainstream. I won two R&B Grammys. If I was a singer
who won those Grammys, I'd be gracing all the magazine covers—all
the urban magazine covers—something. I barely got asked
to do an interview. When we won the first Grammy, and we went
backstage to do all the interviews after you win, holding the
award and talking, people were like looking at their sheets going,
"So, do you guys...sing?" "No, we're an instrumental
band." "Oh, umm..." You know, it's confusing! But
if you ask people they say, "Oh! I love the music, Oh! I
love that album." Okay, well, give me those same opportunities.
I'm trying to break down that barrier. I want to get that kind