In conversation with robert glasper
By Ted Panken
“I'm dramatic,” Robert Glasper told me in 2005 for a Downbeat story. “I feel like an actor and a painter—all the arts in one. When I play, I won't sacrifice the vibe for some chops.”
On his 2009 release, Double Booked [Blue Note], Glasper actualizes this aspiration more completely than on any of his previous recordings. He devotes the first half to his soulful, expansive, highly individualized conception of the acoustic piano trio, drawing harmonic references from a timeline spanning Bud Powell to Mulgrew Miller. His lines flow organically through a succession of odd-metered and swing grooves and unfailingly melodic beats. He stretches out, but he’s also not afraid to milk his melodies and develop them slowly, using techniques of tension and release more commonly heard in functional situations than art music contexts. For part two, Glasper transitions to a plugged-in mise en scene, deploying spoken word and rhymes from such luminaries as Mos Def and Bilal. The latter both employ the Houston native on both recorded and performance projects, as have the likes of Q-Tip (The Renaissance), Kanye West (Late Registration), MeShell Ndegeocello (The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams), Erykah Badu, J Dilla, Jay-Z, Talib Kweli, Common, and, most recently, Maxwell, who kept Glasper on the road for consequential chunks of 2009.
Out of Houston, Texas, where he attended Houston's High School of Performing and Visual Arts, Glasper developed his ability to spin tales in music from emulation of his mother, the late Kim Yvette Glasper, a professional jazz, blues and church singer, and from early experience playing the service in three different churches, one Baptist, one Seventh Day Adventist, and one Catholic.
“The music in the church is built on feeling, period,” he told me. “It’s not ‘Giant Steps.’ People give praise or cry, and you have to control all those things. You put a little something behind the pastor. Depending on the type of song, church music has jazz elements and pop elements, too. Hip-Hop is natural for me, because church music has a lot of the same grooves. I just fall in—take from here, take from there, but don’t take too much from one thing.”
In late August, I caught up with Glasper, now married and a father, at the offices of EMI-Blue Note for a conversation.
Describe your last few months of work. How much has it been divided between the acoustic trio, being on the road with Maxwell and your other sideman things, and to the Experimental Project? To what degree they’re separate and to what degree related would be a good way to launch the conversation.
Actually, this year I haven’t been doing much, because I just had a baby, January 22nd, and I pretty much stayed home until April to be with the baby and my lady. I did a few trio gigs at the end of March, and then I went to Africa and did the Capetown Jazz Festival with the Experiment. So we did one night with the Experiment there, and the very next night we did the Experiment with Mos’ Def. Then right from there, which is funny, I flew home for one day, on my birthday, April 6th. The plane was delayed for six hours. So I got to stay home literally, like, 8 hours, got on the plane, flew to Japan to do the Cotton Club with the Trio for a week. Did the Cotton Club with the Trio for a week. Right from Japan, I flew straight to Oakland to do a week with Mos’ Def with my Experiment band, at both of the Yoshi’s—went back and forth from the San Francisco Yoshi’s to the Oakland Yoshi’s. We did that for a week. Then I came home, and basically started the Maxwell rehearsals. Then I went on tour with Maxwell for two months. Got back maybe a week-and-a-half ago. Now I’m starting back out with Max next week, and we’re going to be gone until the middle of November. Then I go out with my trio when I get back, to do a few dates in Europe. Then I go to Japan with the Experiment in December, with Bilal as my special guest. Now we’re actually booking more dates around that time. I’m going to be home for like two months. So we’re trying to do it like that.
But you’re not double-booked for any of those.
I’m not double-booked for any of those, no-no-no. But day to day, I’m doing one or the other.
So it’s a pretty even split.
It’s a pretty even split. Right now, it’s working out, and I can really say I’m working. That’s a good thing.
Double Booked has some structural similarities to the other records. However, where the other records presented one sound, this one presents two. That said, particularly on your Blue Note records, you use the producer’s strategy of splitting the record in half. In My Element began with originals, and then the flavor changed.
Can you speak to how your thinking about making recordings has evolved since your first one, Mood [Fresh Sound], which I wrote the liner notes for. On that one, you said you were trying to do in with an open attitude, like it was a gig. Three years later, when I spoke with you for a Downbeat when you released Canvas, you said the opposite.
For most of Mood, it was just trio, and it was on a small label, so I wasn’t shaking or scared, really. I was, “Ok, I’ll do a record on Fresh Sounds. No one’s going to hear it.” [LAUGHS] For me, it was “everybody does a record for Fresh Sounds; whatever.” So there was no pressure. So I tried to approach it like a gig. But it didn’t really come off the way I wanted to, because we recorded at 10 in the morning—you don’t do gigs at 10 in the morning! Canvas was my first Blue Note...
But it obviously got some attention.
Yes, it definitely got more attention than I was expecting, so that was great as well. When I did Canvas, though, obviously that’s another level. It’s Blue Note now. It’s going to be a debut thing. So I wasn’t so comfortable. I didn’t really approach this one as a gig. This was more like, “let me think this out, because the world is going to hear this.” I had Mark Turner on that record, had Bilal on that record. It was more a compositional record, I think, for me. It wasn’t so much about the trio. It was more about what my sound is and the vibe of my compositions.
For In My Element, I was way more comfortable. It was just about the trio. We had just got off tour, so we knew the songs. I’m not one of those artists that spring up new songs on the day of the hit. I like to know what we’re going to do as far as the songs we’re going to play. I’m not really about, “Ok, I’m going to take two choruses here, and you do this.” I don’t like to structure it, because I do want it to have the feeling and vibe of a live gig. I’d like to keep that as much as possible.
For this record, I started recording a little bit later, so I could have the vibe of, “ok, I’m playing at night now.” I had a few drinks at the studio. I wanted to keep it loose and have the vibe correct. It’s really cold in the studio, and the walls are white, and you have the headphones on—it can really kill the vibe. So if you don’t feel jazz, it’s hard to play comfortable. So I tried to keep that feeling as much as possible. For In My Element, we’d been on tour with it, so it was comfortable—almost every song except for one or two, were first takes, and we only did one take, of “In My Element.” Same thing with Double Booked. Every song on the trio side were first takes and only takes, except I did one extra take on “59 South,” just to do it, because it was the last song we recorded. Incidentally, we never played that one before. That was really new, and I brought it to the studio, and we did it the first time, and it worked out—then I did a second take.
For the Experiment side of Double Booked, same thing. We recorded them in different places, different times. But my Experiment Band is different, too. I love them because we’ve only had one real rehearsal. Everything else we kind of vibe on stage and come up with. Even when we play songs, we might learn a song, say, at a soundcheck, or say, “Hey, learn this song separately, and let’s come together and see what happens.” I love that surprise aspect of it, the way it sounds organic when we do it like that. That’s what happened in the studio. Every song was a first take. We recorded at night, once again had some drinks there, chilled out and made it really loose. So every song on the Experiment side was a first and only take, except two or three takes of the Bilal song, “All Matter,” because that was our first time ever playing the song.
My main thing is trying to translate to CD the live, organic, comfortable performance you would see if you went to the Village Vanguard or another club. That’s hard to do, but I try to get as close to it as possible.
Is there a different intention with the Experiment than the acoustic trio?
Not really different intentions. What makes my trio different, I think, is that we tap into the hip-hop side, and most piano trios don’t do that, and do it back and forth. But with the Experiment, it’s, “Ok, let’s go all the way in and go for it.” It’s not even like Experiment is a hip-hop band. If you listen to the record, all of the songs aren’t hip-hop. It’s not like that at all. We’re a worldly music thing, I guess you could say, in a way. It’s more a hiphop-fusion-jazz-soul vibe, if you will.
Not everything you do as a sideman is hiphop either. Maxwell isn’t hiphop.
Exactly. It’s a mixture. When people refer to Experiment, they say hiphop, but for the most part it’s a different side of me that I can’t really portray in a trio setting. I get to play as a sideman when I play with the Experiment. I get to comp behind Casey Benjamin, and come from a whole different angle musically. I bring in the Rhodes and electric bass, and sonically it’s a different sound, too. So it’s a band that can take you more places than an acoustic piano trio can take you. You can only go so far with acoustic piano and acoustic bass.
The transitions are delineated by a pair of phone messages. This isn’t the first time you’ve used your answering machine as part of the record—you included a message from Dilla on In My Element. At the beginning of the CD is a message from Terence Blanchard—“Are you double booked? Give me a call.” Halfway through, there’s a different sort of message from Quest Love. In any event, were you double booked?
[LAUGHS] That’s the story of the record. I’ve actually been double-booked before. Not with Terence in that instance. But I wanted to find a way to make this album make sense, because when you’re listening it could well seem very random. “Huh? Where did that come from?” I wanted to make a story line. Most jazz records don’t go that deep into their record to do that. That’s more of a hiphop thing, a pop thing, to have interludes and storylines and messages and things. It’s interesting, and I think jazz needs to be more interesting.
We tend to be snobs at times. The whole genre tends toward musical snobbery, in a way. You go to a jazz concert, it could be like going to a golf tournament or something. SHHH. They have that whole vibe. I’m of this generation, and we do things like that. We make the music fun. I try to make it more than just your average record. So I try to throw in those little musical snacks, interludes, and phone messages from people in my other worlds, and make it somewhat different than the normal jazz record—here it is, here’s the tunes.
Are you thinking about it before, or is it all post-production?
For this record, definitely before. I had to figure out the way I wanted to make the record make sense and make a story out of it. Like I say, I didn’t want it to be random.
There are a number of components to your style, which you’ve spoken of. There’s hiphop and jazz. There’s certainly gospel. There’s a blues feeling, too. You also have a pretty distinctive time feel, as has often been noted. I’d like to talk about these elements discretely, perhaps beginning with gospel—and blues as well. As you described to me, early on you played some drums in church, and your mother, who was a singer, brought you with her to clubs, because she wouldn’t entrust you to baby-sitters.
You said: “I have a certain feel, a certain way of thinking and imagining and hearing harmony, and it all descends from coming up in and playing music in the church.”
I guess that’s where I developed my sound. Growing up in church gave me my way of hearing harmony; I would take church and gospel harmonies and mix them with the jazz harmonies I know. That’s not too normal in jazz. Pretty much, the jazz realm, especially when you look at standards and so on, is very II-V-I oriented in the chord changes and AABA in the form. The form and the chord changes tend to repeat a lot—though of course, nowadays, people are branching out and doing all kinds of things. I would write gospel tunes all the time, and people would say about my gospel tunes, “They sound a little jazzy.” But then, when I played jazz, they say, “I hear gospel.” I try not to ignore any part of my background or what I hear. I become a vessel for the music that I hear, and just let it come out how it comes out.
Your sound and harmonic imagination come through pretty fully-formed on Mood, the first record. I think the evolution has come in other way—narrative focus, broader frames of reference, more clarity. But there’s a pretty recognizable line from when you were 21-22. Would you agree with that?
Yeah, I would. I’m glad of that. I didn’t think so at the time, I didn’t know at the time, until I did the record and started hearing that. “Wait. Maybe I do have a certain sound.” That’s the greatest compliment anybody can tell someone—“You have your own sound.” It’s different than, “You’re a good jazz musician” or “boy, you can really play.” There’s a million people who can really play, but that don’t have a sound. It’s totally different. I know people who aren’t really great players, but they have a sound, and they can write, and they also have a sound compositionally. I’ll take that over just being a good player, because those come a dime a dozen.
Another component of gospel is not the sound that imprinted itself on your consciousness, but that you started working as a professional musician at a very early age in the church.
Exactly. Especially for African Americans, too. That’s the only place where at 8 years old you can get a paycheck playing music. People don’t come up with money, so if you’re a musician, it’s a way you can help out with the family. I know people literally 7 years old that play drums in church who make a check. There’s no other way you can do that musically at 7 right around the corner from your house.
No more Jackson 5.
No more Jackson 5, that kind of stuff. Church is very accessible for African-American people to come up and play in. Then from church, that’s when you develop being spiritual in music, being able to touch someone with a song. When you play in church, the audience, the congregation, the choir, are all reacting to you as well. Everything you play, the singers are reacting to you, the audience is reacting to that, and it’s all very spiritual. I think that’s another part of music that I take from church as well—not playing for the sake of playing but for the spiritual aspect, the emotion, the realness of it, the organic honesty of the whole thing.
By the age of 16, you were orchestrating 10,000 congregants in a service at the Brentwood Church in Houston, where Joe Samuel Ratliff was the pastor. That’s quite a responsibility. And not just there, but at the Catholic church nearby, and another service, too...
Then I played another service on Saturdays with my mom at a Seventh Day Adventist church. So I was rolling in the dough in high school!
Talk about your learning curve. How quickly did you develop facility at the piano? And what do you think allowed you to have that kind of perspective and detachment at that age?
I don’t know. Honestly, I think I was born with that thing. I just discovered it late. Then I think I always had the talent to play the piano, but kind of refused it—I kind of tapped in and just left it alone. I thought I was going to be a track star, but it didn’t work out for me. I ran the mile. I was pretty fast. Up until four years ago, the record for my elementary school for the mile run was still up. No one had beat it. I don’t even know if it’s been beaten yet. But four years ago, my old coach found me, emailed me, “good to hear what you’ve been doing; by the way, your record for the mile run has still not been beaten.” Oh yeah! Look out. Bolt, look out!
I think Bolt is safe for a while.
He’s amazing. Bolt is a very inspirational cat to me right now. But I think I got the musical gene from my mom. Well, my whole family is pretty musical. My grand-dad’s a singer, my aunt is a singer. So when you go to our family reunion, it’s like a musical. Everybody’s singing and doing things. So just my sensibility to music, and even to my facility on the piano... I can’t explain it, because I never had formal lessons. I’ve just been able to play. That came natural. Along the way, I learned certain things, definitely, but it all pretty much came natural. And then, holding down a church service by yourself on a piano does require some facility as well. Certain things you’ve just got to be able to do. That helped as well.
You couldn’t have been entirely self-taught, though, because you did go to Houston High School of Performing Arts, a magnet school, where there must have been some formal training..
Yes. But there wasn’t piano training there. All the school had there was a jazz combo and a jazz band. Jazz big band and jazz combo. Basically, they’d give you charts, and you’d just learn tunes and stuff like that. We had a harmony class, so you would learn things about harmony, ear training, and so on, that, but never an actual piano teacher who would sit down with you at the piano and show you things. To this day, I’ve still never had a real piano teacher. I just picked up things here and there where I could, off the streets. A lot of comrade church musicians, we would sit down and shed together. I got a lot from Alan Mosley, a piano player in Houston who played with my mom all the time. He’s the reason why I even play jazz. He’d come over to the house and rehearse with my mom, and I’d sit there by the piano the whole rehearsal and watch him play, and afterwards he’d show me things. I think the first jazz tune I learned to play was “Spiderman,” the actual cartoon Spiderman—he taught me a jazz way to do it, like a minor blues. Then he showed me how to play “Cherokee,” how to play “Giant Steps,” things of that nature. So he’d be it as far as a jazz teacher or piano teacher goes.
A very pragmatic education. Put your fingers here, you get this sound.
I’d like to talk about pianistic influences. You have a Herbie Hancock tune on every one of your records. I know you’ve said that this is by accident, but it can’t really be one.
The first two albums it was completely, “Dang. Really? I did it again.” Kind of accdental, not really thinking about it, just kind of happened. Then In My Element, I actually further Radioheadalized “Maiden Voyage,” which I’d done on Mood, but hid the Radiohead more, so it wasn’t so obvious. But there I wanted to make it obvious, so I redid it for that purpose. Then on Double Booked, we did “Butterfly.” Now a part of my repertoire is Herbie songs. We feel comfortable playing them, and he’s an amazing composer.
Actually, I thought for the life of me that “Silly Rabbit” was referencing “Jackrabbit” from Inventions and Dimensions.
Not one bit. But it’s certainly in that vibe. Herbie’s impact on me is his ability to go between any genre of music and fit right in. Herbie could easily go from a Bonnie Raitt gig to a Stevie Wonder gig to a Miles Davis gig to a Mos’ Def gig, to any gig he wants to go to, and just slip right in, and sound amazing, and still sound like Herbie—but fit what’s happening. He’s like water. He fits the shape of whatever is needed without losing his self, his consistency, his own thing. Now, he’s one of my favorite acoustic piano players, but he’s also my favorite on Rhodes. No one gets a sound out of the Rhodes like Herbie. It’s amazing. What’s he’s done in terms of branching off from his acoustic jazz career, and doing the Headhunters and the Mwandishi stuff, and getting into the hiphop side, and getting the recognition he’s got from the world. Everyone knows “Rockit.” It’s hard for a jazz person to get that recognition. Most people know “Watermelon Man,” believe it or not. Stuff like that. And he hasn’t lost any respect from anyone by any means. He’s still playing to this day. I respect him on the piano, and also off the piano, just business-wise and his imagination. Then there’s how open he is to this day. He’s not a musical snob. Not one bit. It maybe an “us Aries” thing. He’s very open, and he sounds open. When he’s playing, he sounds like he’s having fun, and I love that, too. Some people take what they do way too seriously, so it comes across. But you can hear he’s having fun, reaching for things. I love his spirit as well.
7-8 years ago, you mentioned Keith Jarrett less as a stylistic influence than as a template for your trio playing. Does that still hold true?
Yes, that totally still holds true. With Keith, it’s so organic, and he translates that very well from live to record. Everybody in the trio has a voice, and it makes the music more interesting. When you go to Keith’s concert, you don’t know where everything is going to come from. You can tell everybody has a place, and also trades places.
Monk. You do “Think of One” on this. I like the version, because you played the tune idiomatically but also sounded like yourself. When did you get involved in Monk’s music? In high school or later?
No, that came after. Even when I first got to college, I wasn’t a big Monk fan. I liked his tunes. That became a thing, especially in college. Everybody tries to learn the most obscure Monk tunes, have a competition who knows the most obscure Monk tunes—but I was never really so into it. Around mid-college, 1999-2000, I became more intrigued by him.
Was it being in New York for a while?
That, but then also, when everywhere you go, everybody’s trying to play a Monk tune. You think, “Let me check this out and see what it is.”
What hadn’t appealed to you, and when then did appeal to you?
Now I’m more into the composition and his comping. And Monk’s attitude. He had a certain attitude when he played, a fun, free attitude like what I hear when I hear Herbie or Chick. Have fun. It so comes across. Monk’s that way. When you watch him, you can tell. But in college, checking out his compositions really did it for me. When I decided to do a Monk tune, I didn’t want to do it the regular way. Everyone does Monk tunes all the time, to the point where, after a while, it gets annoying, because “ok, now you’all just doing it to do it.” You’re not doing it any justice. So when I did do one, I wanted to do it in a way that was fresh and new, and at the same time you never lose the tune. Some people will redo something, and it’s like, “where is the song?” They’ll even change the melody to fit some chord or something. Huh? So I try to respect the song, and at the same time put my own thing on it, and at the same time make it as modern as possible. That’s what I did when I mixed it with Dilla. I came up with that idea.
Speaking of Dilla, let’s talk about your time feel. A few years ago, you told me that Damion Reed, who played drums with you then, called the way you feel time “the circle.” You continued: “We don’t think straight-ahead like 1-2-3-4. We feel where the measures end, do whatever we have to do between 1 and 4 to get back to the 1, and then come in together.” Does that description still obtain for the way you think about time?
Yes, but not so much as then, because I play a little bit different with Chris Dave. Damion was more open and free-flowing, to the point where sometimes the time would get lost—you don’t know where it is. It’s still there, but it’s more mysterious where the time is. Chris is a master at knowing where the time is, and doing so many different things with it, but you still feel where it is. So I still feel the pulse. With Damien, you would lose the pulse sometimes—in a good way. “Oh, shit, where’d it go, where’d it go? Ah, there it is.” BAM. So it made me play a certain way within measures. That still has its place now, too, at times, but not so much as it did.
You obviously use many beats from hiphop, particularly ideas that were in play during the ‘90s, in your formative years and when you first became involved. Can you speak to your perception of how hiphop affected jazz time? Also, once in New York, did you personally incorporate other rhythmic influences? You arrived here at a time when various hybrids were taking shape. Dafnis Prieto came to town in 1999, along with other Cuban and Afro-Caribbean musicians. Brad Mehldau’s ideas were well-established.
A lot of those things are true, but probably I didn’t realize it, just being in it. Sometimes it just seeps in, and you don’t know. Just going from club to club and playing with different people in school and outside of school, a lot of things affect you, and you don’t even know. It’s like catching a cold. You never really know where exactly you got the cold; just you get home and don’t feel too well. You don’t know if you got it on the subway, when you were outside, when you were at McDonald’s. So a lot of the rhythmic things are just being in New York and getting all of it at different times.
But also, playing in a soul and hiphop setting often, as well as playing jazz often, I would intermingle the two without really trying, I think. I’m used to playing this way time-wise. When I play hiphop and soul, especially with the people I was playing with, behind the beat is kind of the thing to do. It has a certain feel. So I took that over to the jazz realm, and it became my style, in a way, to have that kind of vibe with the jazz style. The jazz style tends to be on top of the beat more, versus laid-back. I think I get that from especially hiphop in the area of Dilla, who I got into around 2000-2001. His stuff is about things like sampling pianos, or any instrument, putting it way back behind the drums, and the bass is way behind, but the snare on the drums is a little bit ahead, and there’s nothing landing you anywhere—you’re just wobbling around in the middle, nodding your head, like “Oh my God. I feel the time; I can’t really nail it, but it’s there.” It’s kind of mysterious. I call it “drunk funk. Anyway, I took that, and cats like Pete Rock have the same thing, and some Tribe Called Quest things (which Dilla was part of for the first part of his career) have the same thing. DJ Premier, too.
What’s the appeal of that time feel?
It just feels so good. It doesn’t feel jagged or in a rush. It feels like you’re taking your time, like you’re just chillin’. You’re not taking anything too...almost too seriously. I feel like I’m hanging out for a while! Or something. You feel more in control, too. Because when everything is jagged, and you’re on top and they’re on top, it feels like rush hour. Imagine being in rush hour, but you’re going slow as hell, but you’re still with everybody, so everybody else is looking at you like you’re in slow motion—there’s no traffic for you but it’s rush hour. It’s an interesting feeling.
Would the rush hour feeling have anything to do with a northern way of thinking vis-a-vis a southern way of thinking?
Not really. Honestly, I think it’s a mixture of the two. Culturally, African-American people tend to lay back behind the beat. Other cultures tend to be more on top of the beat. [DEMONSTRATES ON HIS CHEST] That lazy, fucked-up rhythm from Africa. It’s passed down. It’s more natural. We’re more rhythmic people, if you will. I think that’s probably what it is.
In high school, before you came to New York, what hiphop were you listening to?
Mostly just Tribe Called Quest and some Busta Rhymes stuff. I wasn’t as big into hiphop in high school as I became once I moved to New York.
Was this because of the church influence?
Church influence. For the most part, my life was pretty much church and jazz. I was working in church on the weekends, and during the week choir rehearsals and stuff like that, and then, when I’d go to school, it was jazz. Once I moved to New York, which is the home of hiphop, is when I really got knocked in the head with a bunch of hiphop. I started to work with Bilal, then started meeting all these emcees and doing little things, shows with him and shows with different hiphop artists. That’s how I got into it more. I’m still not the biggest hiphop head. But I like what I like.
You described for me a couple of years ago how your jazz career evolved from the New School. You came here from Houston, Dr. Ratliff from Brentwood Church knew the pastor at the Canaan Church in Harlem, so you got a job playing that service early on, which probably kept you in funds.
Then you started going to sessions. You mentioned a place in Fort Greene called Pork Knockers, Cleopatra’s and Small’s in Manhattan. Anthony Wonsey linked you to Russell Malone, and things happened. But could you go into some detail on your progress in..well, let’s not call it “hiphop,” because it seems insufficient. Let’s call it Urban music.
The very first day I got to the New School, they had all the new students play. They call your name up and put a little group together on the spot, and you play together. I can’t remember if Bilal and I were on the stage together or if we were separate, but by the end of that day, we were boys, we were friends. We started hanging out. One of the teachers from the New School said, “I have a friend who lives right around the corner who used to drum for the Spin Doctors, Aaron Comess, if you want to do some recording over there.” We were like, “cool.” Bilal wanted to do a demo, and we went over there and did some recording. Soon after that, Bilal got signed, and once he got signed, before his record came out, we started doing gigs around the city, and that’s where I started meeting people in the Soul genre, in the Hiphop genre. Bilal had Common and Mos Def on his record. So at one point, we went on tour with Common, and then Common opened up for Erykah Badu, so the tour was with Erykah, Common, and Bilal. Then I met Mos Def. I was playing with Bilal, but on the tour, you get to know all the cats in their bands, and you get to know the them, too. I’ve done some playing with Common, and done some things with Erykah, not in her band, but situations where we’re together. From that, I met the Roots—Bilal’s from Philly, the Roots are from Philly—and I started playing gigs with the Roots on and off. Throughout the years, that aspect of it has continued to grow. From there, I started playing with Q-Tip. I’ve done some things with Talib Kwali.
It seems like the two most consequential relationships now are with Bilal and Mos Def.
Yeah, Bilal, Mos Def, and Tip.
Talk about each of them.
Bilal is my favorite singer, period, of all time. He’s extremely organic. He doesn’t do anything unless he means it. He’s an amazing vocalist, period. People don’t even know, but he was like all-state opera in high school. He has an extremely trained voice without sounding trained. But he can sing any genre. He’s probably the only male jazz vocalist I know that actually sings jazz for real. Most people that sing jazz get on my nerves, because there’s a specific jazz voice people have when they sing jazz that’s annoying. It’s like, “I’m singing JAZZ now.” It sounds like their eyebrow is up. It’s really annoying. But he gets it, and he’s actually a jazz musician at heart. He knows how to interpret songs. He can do that in any genre of music, and he knows how to change his voice to fit certain things. Musically, he’s an amazing cat.
Mos Def is a great person overall. Funny cat. Very down to earth. I don’t think there’s an asshole bone in his body. He doesn’t come off like one of them cats, like, “Oh, I’m a superstar, leave me alone”—that kind of vibe. He’s very open, and musically very honest, and has an eclectic library of music in his head. When we do shows with him, we’ll go from an Eric Dolphy tune to a Neal Young song in a minute, to a Radiohead song, to a James Brown. To whatever. He loves music. He’s a vessel for music. He understands the live band aspect, because he plays a little piano, plays a little drums; he respects it and is always searching for more knowledge. Also what’s great about working with him is he lets me be me. We have a good working thing, because he listens to me, I listen to him, and we work things out. It’s a very give-and-take relationship.
Tip is the same way. Mentally, his musical library is ridiculously huge, and so is his physical library at his house. He has so much music. He’s one of them cats that I would call if I was on Millionaire and there was a question about music. He’s a deejay at heart, too. Records, years of records... And he has perfect pitch. An emcee with perfect pitch? A lot of the songs that we start, songs that he sings, he can start them off the top and be in the right key all the time. He’s another emcee, like most, who knows how to play a little piano. He’ll be rhyming, and then, “Yo, stop real quick. When we get to that A-flat-minor chord, play this.” That’s crazy. For an emcee to be that musical is different than a singer, because most emcees much just rhyme their tracks, so they’re not really doing it with a live band aspect. Again, Tip has a big respect for the live band aspect. He’s one of the people trying to bring it back and move it forward, and look to the future and do some cool things.
That segues well into my next question, which is how hiphop/urban music has evolved during your own maturity, since you arrived in New York in 1997. At the time, there was a confluence of many streams, which have since branched out, until today hiphop itself is in a different place, and the hot performers from then have matured and gone in different directions.
In 1997, when I first got here, the Neo-Soul movement was big, which brought back the live bands and the importance of the live band sound. There was a big blast of, “Let’s bring live bands back.” Hiphop artists were using bands. Then something happened in Neo-Soul, and it got strange. I think once D’Angelo was out of the picture, it started dying down a little bit, then Hiphop in itself got real strange, and now you have all these kind of dumb songs, and they’re not really Hiphop. I call it “Hip-Pop.”
Is Hiphop something else now?
No, Hiphop is still Hiphop. But the stuff that people say is Hiphop isn’t even hiphop to me. That’s like people calling Smooth Jazz, “jazz,” to me. When people say “jazz,” I think what I think, but somebody might call it listening to jazz—which they can, but for me it’s not that. I don’t even get mad. There’s a lot of bullshit out right now getting fed to the public, and they’re eating it, and they’re thinking that’s where real music is. That’s the area we’re in now. We’re trying to fight back and bring back the live band and the good music, and even the stuff that people are talking about is... You’re still talking about money and fat asses? Really? Can we move on? That type of thing.
Now I think there’s more of an uprising of actual cause for good music. For a while there was no cause. A lot of good music is lost. Back in the day, there was great music, because there was a cause behind the music. Something political was happening...
What do you mean by “back in the day”?
‘70s and below. There was always a cause. Your “What’s Going On” era with Marvin Gaye. All that shit. There was always a cause and a passion for real music, a PASSIONfor it, and now it’s just like some dumb shit. But I think it’s coming back. Politically, there are things happening. You have Barrack Obama. Michael Jackson just passed, so now people are revisiting those records and getting influenced again. Sometimes you don’t really think about shit until it’s gone. I think Michael’s passing is really making people reflect and look back and see what’s real now, and it’s changing their aspect on things...
How so? For you, for instance?
My lady and I were talking about this the other day. I think Michael’s influence for most people is different than anybody else’s, because he was such a big influence on the world when he was 7. I don’t know anybody else who can say that—like, on his level. He was a major superstar for 43 years. On top of the world type stuff. That’s unheard-of. So you kind of watched him grow up. You feel like you knew him when he was a child, when you see these videos. He was always an influence for me. I used to get in trouble for moonwalking in second grade. I had the glove and everything. I actually went to a Jackson Five concert, and the whole nine. When you listen back, people forget that he could really, really sing. Michael Jackson was a brand, so you get caught up in his whole thing, with the dancing, and just him being weird, and the Jackson Five and all this stuff. But if you sat Michael down in a chair next to a piano and start playing, just to hear him sing...he was ridiculous! I think people skip over it. You think he can sing, but when you listen back to the music you’re like, “Wow, he can really sing!” He was so ahead of his time! When he was with the Jackson Five, when they were small, doing the Destiny album, with some of those changes on there, and he’s singing all through them changes, eating them up... It’s like, “Yo, you’re 7; why are you sounding like you’re 30 and you’ve been hurt already?” That’s what Smokey Robinson was saying after he recorded “Who’s Loving You,” and Berry had Michael Jackson sing it after he signed Michael Jackson. Berry called Smokey, like, “You sung this song, but listen to this,” and Smokey heard him and it was like, “Oh my God. This boy sounds like he’s been through it all, and he’s like 9.” So Michael Jackson was an angel that God put here specifically for a reason. He did inspire me and most people musically.
Before your digression on Michael Jackson, you spoke of the ways in which the music of the ‘60s and ‘70s reflected the times in which it was created, and said you say you feel similar winds in the air today. Can you reflect on any connections between the way you’re approaching jazz and the way the culture has developed during your maturity?
I’m trying to involve things and people in the music that have something to do with today, and pushing the envelope in music and politics and everything in general. I had a song on the record that I didn’t release because we couldn’t get it cleared. I was playing a one-motif thing, and over it was the news about the Sean Bell hearing , and it had Martin Luther King’s “We Shall Overcome” speech....
Sean Bell was the man who was killed by 50 shots from several policeman after leaving his bachelor party in Jamaica, Queens.
Yeah. More than 50 shots. They all got off. It also had my friend, Jessie, who was a Katrina victim, speaking about his experience with that, and there was a Barrack Obama thing at the end of it. It addresses the time period we’re in. Certain albums you can look back on and you know the time period it was in just by listening to it. I think being able to capture the times musically within a record is kind of a lost art as well. Then, the people I’m using on the record, like Quest and Terence and Mos, are visionary people who I look up to, who are doing things. The time period we’re in is making me be more aware of my surroundings. That kind of thing.
I do want to ask you about one tune on Double Booked, “Festival,” with Casey Benjamin, which in the beginning, the way Casey is playing and the way you’re comping, makes me think of the Wayne Shorter Quartet. Now, whether or not I’m accurate on this, could you discuss some of other bands you’ve been paying attention to over the last 8-9 years?
It’s very possible that what you say is true. I love Wayne. He’s my favorite jazz composer. I love his composing, period. I also love Art Blakey and the Messengers. I love the Miles Davis Quintet. I love Herbie’s stuff on his own. I love the John Coltrane Quartet. I love Brian Blade’s Fellowship Band. I love the Bandwagon—Jason Moran. Terence Blanchard’s band. He’s had a few different bands through the years, and I love what he does.
A few words about the contemporary bands you spoke of—Bandwagon, Fellowship, Blanchard.
First of all, Brian Blade is one of my favorite drummers of all time, because he gives you a feeling like he’s playing keys. He brings so much color to the music that normally a drummer wouldn’t bring. His textures and the passion that he has when he plays, you can feel it and you can hear it. It’s all there. He’s just a very emotional drummer. I’ve cried listening to Blade. Drummers don’t generally make people cry. I also love the compositions that Fellowship plays and the way they portray them. Brian Blade Fellowship put on probably my top favorite concert I’ve ever seen, at the Vanguard a few years ago. You can get a lot of great musicians, put them together, but they don’t sound good as a band. But Fellowship is a great band, in their collective honesty and how they play with each other. Ego can get in the way of allowing honest things to happen, but with Fellowship there’s no ego on that stage.
I think that’s what it is with Jason, and also Terence. It’s Terence’s band, but he doesn’t have an ego about it. He lets everybody write, lets everybody be themselves, and kind of goes where the music goes. He’s not trying to dictate everything because he’s the leader and “this is what it is.” You can feel that from the spirit. What makes me like people is the spirit, the intention, and that really comes across in Terence’s band. Especially Terence’s current band, because Kendrick Scott is on drums. He’s another one of my favorite drummers. He’s like a Blade, too—I think he’s also made me cry. I’ve been playing with Kendrick since high school, and Kendrick was playing with me at Dr. Ratliff’s church. I’ve known him for years. He’s definitely a very egoless drummer. Really about the music and what’s happening, and lets the spirit move him. I love that about him.
You made a remark in 2005 about liking to play with Derrick Hodge, who plays on the Experimental half of Double Booked, because he can go in and out of jazz and hiphop feels seamlessly, as can you. Can you speak to the qualities that are distinctive to rendering jazz and rendering hiphop, and the complexities that pertain to a jazz-oriented musician addressing hiphop and to a hiphop artist addressing jazz?
As far as jazz and then going into hiphop, I think it’s the disconnect between urban music and jazz musicians. Because nowadays, let’s face it, there are less African-Americans playing this music than there were before. I sat down not too long ago and tried to name five pianists that are my age or younger who are known on the scene.
Who are African-American?
Yeah. I couldn’t name five—I was really trying—who are really known, who are my age and younger who are actually on the scene. In other words, is somebody in Chicago going to know this person? Since we live in New York, we have a false reality. If I live in Kansas, am I going to know Eric Lewis? Love him to death. He’s one of my favorite pianists. He’s ridiculous. Amazing. I mean, I can name some people I know who are in New York that are bubbling. But I’m just saying cats that are getting some kind of broader recognition. You do this for a living, so you’re going to know these cats. But I doubt someone who’s going to a college in Houston or in Kansas is going to know who all those cats are. I’m not saying they’re not here, but they’re new, bubbling kind of cats that are not getting the recognition they probably should.
But as a whole, there’s not a large amount of African-Americans playing this music, as was the case before. Let’s flip it around. In the ‘60s, there were more black people playing jazz than white people.
Whether or not that’s true, black musicians formed the preponderance of those crucial to the development of the idiom.
Yes, of course. I did a survey of my own. If you look at the life of jazz, and take out anybody who wasn’t black, would it really change? Probably not so much. I don’t think it would have been a big change if you take out anybody who wasn’t black. Nowadays, if you flip it around, if you remove people who are black, the scene wouldn’t change very much. Look at all the magazines, look at everything—there’s not many black people in there. Most of your vocalists under 30 that you’re hearing about and seeing are white. Now, I’m just speaking about 30 years and younger. This generation. I’m talking about the difference between my generation and another generation. This generation has more European and more Asian than Black. I think it’s at an all-time high now. With black people, what happens is, when they’re young like me, they get sucked into playing in church. It’s easier. They make money. Not everybody has a jazz mentor. Like I say, we live in New York, so we have a false reality. If you’re from wherever, Cincinnati, and you’re an up-and-coming piano player, there’s probably one jazz club, maybe, and there’s probably no jazz station, and if there is a jazz station they’re probably playing Charlie Parker. Let’s be honest. Jazz stations suck nowadays. There aren’t many good jazz stations.
Well, I’d hope they were playing Charlie Parker. But hopefully they’re playing something of today as well.
Right. Music moves on in every other genre. If you turn on Hot-97, they’re playing Usher. When you turn it on, 9 times out of 10 you’re probably going to hear Chris Brown because he’s up to date. Any other genre of music is like that, except jazz. Jazz is very history-oriented, and it pretty much stays there for most people. Versus any other music. It’s very history-oriented, and it’s to the point where, “Do you care about the future?” Hello! Some people aren’t about the future. You’re about the future. But you have the same respect for the past.
You have to balance it.
You have to balance it. But most people, when it comes to jazz, there’s no balance. They won’t talk about Marcus Strickland. Jazz is hidden. Where would you find him? If you don’t live here, how would you know him? 99 times out of 100, the jazz stations aren’t going to be playing him. If you turn on the TV, you’re not going to see him. You have to dig pretty hard. Other genres of music, the new shit that’s out, it’s put in your face. I have to know Chris Brown right now. Without trying, you’re going to know him. You’re going to see him in the magazines, you’re going to see him on TV, you put on the radio and he’s going to be there. That’s how it is. They force-feed new artists down your throat.
I’ve wavered way off the point. But I’m saying that this is the disconnect of it. Because now, this music has changed from being more of a music that I guess black people have been playing to more of a music that other people are playing, so therefore the aspect of the groove, that urban groove, is lost. The Europeans and Asians aren’t driven by urban rhythm. They’re more driven by melody, notes, and other kinds of things. So it’s very hard for a jazz musician nowadays to be able to play a hip-hop groove, because that’s not really where they’re from with it. So it’s changed. Because back in the day, in the ‘60s, if you told somebody a jazz musician was on the gig, it was like, “Oh, great! Yes!” They did a lot of the Motown recordings. It was like a marriage back then. After the jazz clubs, they’d go right to the studio. If you look on many albums, you’ll see Ron Carter on the record, Herbie on the albums...
There was a studio scene.
Exactly. There was more of a mingle, too, between the studio musicians and the jazz cats. Now, to be a studio musician, you live in L.A. and you play real jazz here. It’s really separated.
This began when I asked you the impact of hiphop on jazz. Now let’s talk about the impact that jazz is having on hiphop.
Well, jazz has always had an influence on hiphop. Jazz is one of the reasons why hiphop is what it is. Jazz musicians have been sampled for years now. That’s what made me start listening to hiphop, from when I was listening to Tribe Called Quest in high school. I grew up in the suburbs in Houston, so a lot of the rap I would hear, I wouldn’t be able to identify with it, because a lot of people talked about guns or the ghetto or these girls, and I wasn’t about that, so it would go over my head. Until I heard A Tribe Called Quest, and I was like, “Wait—there’s chords. Wow, there’s melody. Wait, that’s ‘Red Clay.’ I know that tune!” It kind of grasped my ear. It’s like, “yo, they’re melodic.” So then I started listening to them. That’s what grasped me, the chord changes and things of that nature. To this day, I’m catching more and more songs, like songs I used to love, and I’m like, “Oh, I know what that song is; they sampled that tune.” So jazz always had an influence.
I think nowadays, it’s now about having the actual musicians mingle together. That hasn’t happened in a very long time. Granted, hiphop is new, so Trane couldn’t mingle with a hiphop artist now—he’s gone. Bill Evans, the same thing. But those cats have been sampled. Ron Carter’s done it. He’s done it for Tribe. So there certain cats now actually are bridging that gap, and have bridged that gap. I’m trying to bridge that gap, and do it while I’m actually doing my thing as well at the same time.
You remarked to a British paper a few years ago that you play “intelligent hiphop.” Can you elaborate a bit?
I can’t stand the hiphop that’s all about the jewelry and the girls and the money and the guns. I like more conscious hiphop, like talking about the empowerment of black people. Your empowerment of yourself as a person, whatever color you are. Treating women right. Every other song is dissing a woman and calling them a bitch or whatever. I’m more into other hiphop that’s more positive, talking about something else, something that’s not degrading. Moreso than ever, those songs are the ones that I like the music for, because those people are more conscious, and mostly conscious people listen to better music than people who aren’t conscious. Tribe Called Quest is very conscious. Common is very conscious. Mos Def is very conscious. They all have great, great music. So I guess that’s what brings the two together for me.
You were talking about all the obstacles that militate against a young black kid actually playing jazz. You could get trapped in the economics of being a church musician, you won’t get to hear it on the radio, and so on. But quite a number of remarkably mature, well-formed jazz musicians emerged from Houston, like you and Kendrick Scott, Jason Moran, Eric Harland, Chris Dave, Mike Moreno, Walter Smith...
There we go. Was that solely because of the high school?
Having that high school helped. That’s a big boost. I’m pretty sure that in a lot of other states, there are musicians just as talented, but probably never had the chance to... When colleges come to Houston, they go right to my high school before they go anywhere else. If you’re a music college, you’re going right to my high school. If I went to a regular high school, they would come right there. I probably wouldn’t have been so diligent and worked so hard. When you’re in high school with a bunch of talented people, it makes you work harder. It’s a competition type thing—you want to get better because this person is better. All your friends have the same agenda. They all love what you love. I went to a regular high school my first year, and I couldn’t talk to nobody about jazz! Nobody knew nothing about jazz. If you’re around a lot of people who don’t have the same dream as you and all that kind of stuff, it could wear you down, and you become not so serious about it, and then if you go to a high school that doesn’t have any kind of hoopla about it, you’re probably not going to get the attention from colleges that you want. So for some people, it gets heavier and heavier and heavier on them, and they don’t get that kind of chance. They were talented, but they didn’t hone their craft enough or get the opportunity to do this, and have comrades to do this with. So they just stay in church and do what they do, and it’s that.
But in Houston, I think a lot of it was that from the door the cats are just naturally talented, but then being in a school where there’s other talented cats that have the same interests as you really helps. You’re learning from your friends. I learned a pile of stuff from my comrades that I wouldn’t have known if I didn’t go to that school. Mike Moreno or Walter or Kendrick would bring tapes to school, like, ‘Yo, check out this new stuff.” They were really into what was happening in New York and in the jazz scene, and so on.
You made a remark, “I feel like I’m an actor and a painter. It’s all the arts in one. So when I’m playing the piano, I don’t just think of it as, ‘Oh, I’m playing piano.’ I won’t sacrifice the vibe for some chops.” You said, “it’s a mood thing. On each song I go into a place in my mind, and I’m in my moment right there.” Does that attitude perhaps hearken back to your church background, and orchestrating the function?
Exactly. Everything has its place. I’m not one of the people who play for the sake of playing. Some people say I don’t play enough. “I loved that tune, but you didn’t play enough of that tune.” But at the same time, a person will come to me and say, “the way you played on that song...” Space says just as much for me as playing something, and I think once you realize that space and silence is sound, that it has as much of a place as something you’re playing, it takes cats a long way. You really jeopardize the meaning and the mood and the focus of what’s going on when you just play to play. I think you reach people when it’s just honest. “Shit, I don’t feel like playing on this part.” It doesn’t come to me like that. “I just want to lay on these chords.” Then you’ll hear the inflections, say, that the drums are doing more. Then maybe the drums take over. He’s not even really soloing. It’s just the vibe, and you start thinking. It gives you a chance to think. A lot of times, if you go to a concert, people are doing so much on stage, it doesn’t allow your mind to be free to think of something and go somewhere. I like to be a soundtrack sometimes, so I might just play something, and it repeats. It might be a vamp. I might not be soloing, but I may be sparking some thoughts. It’s almost like giving you a soundtrack to whatever you’re thinking right now. Then you might start, “Oh, man!” It makes you feel a certain way. All that plays a part. So I think I’m just in tune with that.
Were things that happened in the early ‘90s...Was MBASE an influence on you?
Was, say, Buckshot LaFunke, Branford Marsalis’ stuff, an influence on you?
I knew about Branford in high school, but I didn’t know about Buckshot LaFunke until I got to college. None of those things really...
Once you got to New York, did MBASE...
No. It still doesn’t.
that approach to music-making still isn’t so meaningful to you.
No. Not to say it can’t be later. But now, no.
You made a remark to the Boston Globe that you couldn’t bring the Experiment out too soon. “I had to establish myself first as a jazz pianist, and get that respect, otherwise very fast you’ll get pegged as a hiphop pianist.” What do you mean by that?
I still get it to this day—a little bit, not so much. But timing plays a part in everything. You can bring something out too early or bring out something too late. It’s just timing—of that record, of your band. I’m an up-and-coming pianist, I’m new, and I’m black; a black piano player having his own trio out in the world working right now is a whole different thing. I’d like to capitalize on that and keep doing that. I didn’t want to move quickly, for the second album on Blue Note, to “Ok, now I’ll do hiphop” or “now I’m playing Rhodes and I got a vocoder and so on,” because then it’s like, “that’s what you really wanted to do, isn’t it?” No. Playing jazz trio is my true love. So I wanted to do a few records with that first, and establish that, so people will respect me for that and understand it, and then I can turn around and do the Experiment stuff. <./p>
Is playing the sideman things and playing the Experiment equally as gratifying to you as the acoustic jazz trio?
Yes, definitely. I have A.D.D., I think, so I have to be doing something different all the time. I have to keep moving, and keep it moving. Which is one of the reasons why I love my trio, because it’s never the same shit all the time. Vicente is not going to play the same thing, Chris is not going to play the same thing. It’s always going to be something different. I don’t feel like I’m going to a job and clocking in. At the same time, I love the fact that I do all these different kinds of gigs. They all call for something different, that demands a certain amount of professionalism and a certain amount of musical maturity. You have to know, “Hey, in this situation I can’t do this; I have to do this. In that situation, I have to do something else.” So it teaches you patience and teaches you to be mature and to respect other kinds of music, while at the same time being able to put yourself into it, which is whole nother type of thing to be able to do. That’s not very easy for a lot of people.
Ted Panken spoke to Robert Glasper on August 28, 2009