For all of the recent praise he’s been gotten, Robert Glasper hasn’t talked much about where he sees himself in jazz history. The pianist and record producer recently released his fourth studio album, "Black Radio", featuring the likes of Erykah Badu and Yassin Bey (formerly Mos Def). It’s an unconventional jazz album, and that’s precisely where the 33-year-old Glasper sees his legacy. "I think I’m the dude that’s kind making jazz relevant to younger people," he says. "I would be the one that’s kinda pushing the envelope further."
Throughout his career, that’s meant mixing jazz with hip-hop, a feat that’s proved unsuccessful for many. But Glasper blends genres easily, and in doing so has proven that there’s an eager audience of music fanatics who’ve been waiting for jazz to adapt to their times. And his range goes far beyond just hip-hop. The new project features covers of Sade’s "Cherish the Day" and Nirvana’s "Smells Like Teen Spirit" – homages to smooth jazz and Seattle grunge that are easier to place for fans who may not be as familiar with jazz’s forebears.
Glasper spoke with Colorlines.com recently about his new project, his hometown of Houston, and how his mother helped shape his eclectic approach to music.
There’s a track on your latest album featuring Erykah Badu called "Afro Blue." It’s a song that’s been around for a while — Santamaria wrote it, Coltrane made it famous, Dianne Reeves, Santana and Herbie Hancock all did it. In many ways you seem to be pulling directly from that history to make a statement about today. Can you talk a little bit about how that song came together and the message you’re trying to make with it?
When I asked Erykah to do this album, in my mind I’ve always had her doing a jazz record. I still want her to because she’s such a spirit of Billie Holiday naturally, without trying. That’s just how her voice and spirit is that I’ve always heard her doing jazz tunes. When she said OK to this project, I thought it would be dope to mix her with a jazz standard. Also because that’s kinda what this album is. It’s kind of a mixture of the genres. So I definitely wanted to do something that collectively the jazz audience and jazz musicians know, but at the same time use Erykah because she has a whole different fan base.
So now Afro Blue is known to that fan base as well so it works on both sides. I just heard her singing that song in my mind. It sounds like a song that she would sing, you know? She’s very ‘of the Motherland.’ When you look at her show and what she’s about, the jewelry she wears — there’s a lot of Africa in there. I knew she would enjoy it, especially with the lyrics: "Dream of the land/My soul is from/I hear a hand/Stroke on the drum/Shades of delight/Cocoa hue//Rich as the nigh/Afro blue." That just sounds totally like her.
And if you could do an entire jazz album with Erykah Badu, what would that sound like?
That would be amazing to do a whole record with her like that. And just re-do jazz standards, that would be crazy. I’m still in her ear, I think she wants to possibly do something like that so we’ll definitely see. I’m not sure how it would sound or how it would turn out, but I know it would be great.
You’ve worked with a range of artists who are sort of at the center of black music — Badu, Bilal, Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def), Lupe Fiasco. You’re right there in the center with them. How would you describe the energy that’s associated with making music right now?
I think people are realizing that they’ve got to move forward and start being honest with themselves as far as the music goes and what their influences are and what they like and incorporating that into what they do. I think the more people are starting to realize that seeing me do it, and seeing the reception I’m getting, I’m really seeing it. Even speaking about my earlier entry, "In My Element", I had Q-Tip on there, introducing a track "J Dillalude" I got a lot of feedback and great response from the hip- hop audience. So people even then saw that. And I saw certain people just trying to incorporate things, you know, modern things that people of now can understand. So I think there’s a movement of that going on so that’s why I think this record is very much accepted because the timing is right. This kind of movement has been going on for a few years and I think now is just a time to really put it out there. I think the spirit of everybody is really good, people are understanding it, and understand that jazz needs this kind of revival.
Have you gotten any pushback from jazz traditionalists for the way that you’re trying to adapt this to a younger audience?
Not yet, not that I’m aware of anyway [laughs]. I’m sure are those people who are doing that, and saying stuff like that, but those are probably the same people who told Miles that. My thing is, you can’t say I don’t know the tradition. Or I don’t respect the music, because you can check out my early albums. You can ask jazz cats on the scene who’ve heard us play, or you can just come to a show and listen, and you’ll hear the tradition in my playing. If they’re mad that I’m doing this, then it’s probably because they can’t do it [laughs]. I’d be mad too.
Your influences are pretty eclectic. They’ve ranged from Herbie Hancock to Radiohead. Where do your musical tastes come from?
Everywhere. It’s Herbie, it’s never closing my ears, always keeping my ears open. Not just listening to what people think you should listen to if you want to play jazz music. Because that’s what happens to a lot of jazz cats that get into schools. Schools are very good for some things, they’re great. Without school, I wouldn’t be here right now talking to you. But you’ve got to be careful with how that works because some people will just try to tell you how to be a jazz musician, and this-is-what-you’ve-gotta-listen-to-you-gotta- sound-like-this-kinda-vibe. You always have to keep your ears open to all kinds of music. If you allow yourself to be influenced, then it influences your sound and you become yourself by default, without trying. For me, so many people are influences. Bruce Hornsby is a big influence for me, Billy Joel, Herbie, George Duke, Roy Ayers.
Do you think that’s part of your generation? Folks having access to all sorts of records and albums and, at a certain point, iPods.
I’m 33, so when I was coming up I didn’t have YouTube. I didn’t even have CD’s. I didn’t get my first CD ’till I was like a senior in high school. I had tapes. So it wasn’t that accessible and I lived in Houston, Texas. We didn’t have the biggest jazz stores or even jazz clubs, really. So it really wasn’t that accessible to me. I had to kind of find it because it was interesting to me. But younger people coming up, now you can just listen to anything. Any time, whenever you want. And that’s amazing.
How do you think growing up in Houston shaped the way you listen to music and the way that you approach the process of making it?
The church was very good. We had a good Gospel church scene and a lot of great Gospel musicians. So I was in the church scene playing and met a lot of great, great musicians I could watch and learn from.
I also went to a performing arts high school. And there were lots of great musicians who came out of that high school. Beyonce’s one of them, I went to high school with her. A bunch of killer musicians. Kendrick Scott, just a whole lot of great musicians in general. I was always around great musicians who were my age, and that’s not normal for you to be like 15 playing jazz and there are other 15-year-olds playing jazz. There was good competition in the school so it made you better.
And then my family, just being around my mom and my aunts because they sang all the time. My mom played piano and sang all kinds of music. Really being at home, being in church and being in school is what kind of made me be who I am musically. And being around a lot of open people. My mom was everything, and she made me open as well. That’s why my song selection on my album is so random.
I know she was one of your earliest musical influences. Is there any piece of advice or any approach to music that she taught you when you were young that you’ve found particularly useful as you’ve gotten older?
It was more, like, watching her. Because she would perform, and I’d watch her perform, and she would always engage the audience. She taught me that once you engage the audience you can do whatever you want. She taught me how to put the audience in the palm of my hand. That’s why when you see my show, I’m the same of the stage and off the stage. My personality’s the same. So you feel like we’re friends or we’re family while we’re on stage. Once you do that [as an artist], you’re opening a door so you can do anything you want because the audience is right there with you.
And she was always an advocate for doing a lot of stuff, different musical avenues. She sung country, R&B, jazz, pop, rock, Broadway, she was the music director at church on Sundays. She never stopped or turned her nose up at any kind of music.