Robert Glasper Experiment: So Is It Jazz?

Robert Glasper at home in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. The pianist's new album, "Black Radio," comes out Feb. 28.

By Nate Chinen of the NY Times

Robert Glasper Experiment — which has a new album out on Tuesday, and a feature in this week’s Arts & Leisure — specializes in deep, immersive grooves, nourished as much by hip-hop and R&B as any known species of jazz. On the album, “Black Radio,” the band’s sprawl is contained by the dimensions of its songs; that’s not necessarily the case in concert, where a single woozy vamp can often last half an hour or longer.

(Having sold out a Tuesday night show at the Highline Ballroom, the band has added a second show on Wednesday night, with Lupe Fiasco and other guests.)

There’s plenty of improvising in these shows, by Mr. Glasper, on Fender Rhodes and acoustic piano, and by each of his dangerously proficient band mates: Casey Benjamin on saxophone, keyboards and vocoder; Derrick Hodge on electric bass; and Chris Dave on drums. And yet it’s worth posing the question at the top of this post, especially in light of an album with clear crossover designs. So: is it jazz?

Mr. Glasper would answer that question a few different ways. “My whole thing is just getting a new audience to the music,” he said during the first part of our recent interview, in his Brooklyn apartment. “My purpose is not to get everybody to like Charlie Parker. Because the realistic thing is, everybody’s not going to. Everybody’s not going to like jazz, let’s just be honest about it. Everybody doesn’t like everything. There’s a disconnect in generations and some people just aren’t going to feel that music. But there is a modern take on certain things you can do that, to me, is still jazz.”

The last sentence in that quote is a key to understanding Mr. Glasper’s appeal, both in and out of jazz circles. As a close collaborator to so many artists in hip-hop and R&B, he understands what drives that music; he’s no dilettante. And as noted in the article he has made a point of honoring the memory of J Dilla, a producer who was highly regarded well before his death (in 2006), and has since become enshrined in legend. This happens not only with the Robert Glasper Experiment, but also with Mr. Glasper’s trio. Here’s a bootleg recorded at Yoshi’s, the upscale Bay Area jazz club, in 2007:

After the band fades out of “F.T.B.,” an original tune, there’s some stage banter followed by a segue into the J Dilla track “Thelonious,” which was released by Common and Slum Village. Obviously “Thelonious” is J Dilla’s nod to Thelonious Monk — and hardly an idle one. There’s a reason so many young jazz musicians have followed the example of Mr. Glasper (and his partners, especially Mr. Dave) and started incorporating J Dilla beats into their music. Mr. Glasper, among others, would still call it jazz.

But he really doesn’t care whether you would agree with that. Or so he maintained later in our interview, over lunch at the General Greene.


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