Back in 2013, after the Robert Glasper Experiment album Black Radio scored a left-field victory with a Grammy Award for Best R&B Album -- and before Glasper took home a second Grammy for his follow up Black Radio II, which garnered Best Traditional R&B Performance -- the Houston-raised pianist insisted to me that he hadn’t forsaken jazz. “I’ll always play trio,” he said. “It’s my favorite format.”
With his new album Covered, his sixth release for Blue Note, Glasper returns to an unplugged context. With bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Damion Reid, his trio bandmates on his first albums for the historic jazz label, Glasper straddles the best of both worlds for an interactive jazz session marked by the tuneful Black Radio sensibility.
Recorded before an intimate but voluble audience at Capitol Studios in Hollywood, the album features instrumental arrangements of songs by contemporary hip-hop and R&B artists such as Jhené Aiko, John Legend, Musiq Soulchild, Bilal, and Kendrick Lamar, whose hit album To Pimp A Butterfly features Glasper prominently. As he explains it, the concept behind Covered was simple.
“We’re in the middle of a movement, and I don’t want to stop it,” says Glasper, 37, who performs four shows with the trio at the SFJAZZ Center on June 19-20. “Since I’ve been in this Black Radio world, I’ve established a new fanbase, and I didn’t want to cut them off. I also didn’t want to cut off my straight-ahead fanbase. I wanted to make a jazz album that’s accessible for everyone, with songs of our generation that people can relate to.”
Repertoire is only part of Glasper’s outreach. For much of jazz’s history, musicians have used pop tunes of the day as vehicles for improvisation, but rather than reharmonizing the chord changes from “All the Things You Are” or “What Is This Thing Called Love,” he crafts arrangements that hew close to the original melodies. The results on Covered are often gorgeous, whether he’s exploring Joni Mitchell’s “Barangrill” or providing uplifting accompaniment for a brief statement of purpose by undaunted gravel-voiced actor/singer/activist Harry Belafonte.
“I didn’t want to make a record for other jazz musicians,” he says. “I wanted to keep the songs close to their natural form. I mean, I love changing songs. That’s what I do. Anita Baker coined a term for it: 'Glasperize.' But some songs are beautiful, so leave them alone.”
The magic happens in the trio’s subtle interactions, and in the crystalline clarity of their dynamic calibration. Though the trio never swings with a straight-ahead jazz pulse, they're always in a groove. The effect is sometimes reminiscent of Ahmad Jamal’s classic trio with bassist Israel Crosby and New Orleans drummer Vernel Fournier, though Glasper says he didn’t study Jamal “as much as people think. But I did have a few albums and did listen him, so maybe that’s in there.”
In a twist that Glasper finds highly amusing, he did end up recording some swinging tracks while he was working on Covered -- but they were for Kendrick Lamar’s album rather than his own. He had let his old friend, jazz saxophonist and hip-hop producer Terrace Martin, know that he was interested in working with Lamar, and got the call at Capitol to come by Dr. Dre’s studio.
The first track he heard was “For Free? (Interlude),” and he played “straight-up jazz time, doing my McCoy Tyner impression for the most anticipated hip-hop session, coming from my session not playing ‘jazz,’" he says with a chuckle. “Kendrick had never seen me playing live. After that, he pulled up a song they’d recorded and said 'play whatever you hear.' He did that on seven or eight songs. I didn’t know what they were going to keep or not.”
As it turned out, they kept quite a bit. In some cases, like the song “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” by Thundercat, Glapser sparked an entirely new piece. “Kendrick came in the booth and showed me the chords,” he says. “When the track was finished, I kept playing. He said, 'I’m going to bring some other drums up, put some rhymes on it.' It became a whole other interlude. That was dope, inspired by something I did.”
So where does Glasper go from here? A jazz cat with paws inextricably tangled in the worlds of R&B and hip-hop, he sees Black Radio as a vehicle for his future endeavors, whether with his trio, the Robert Glasper Experiment or something beyond.
“Black Radio is a brand,” he says. “I don’t know if you’ll see three, four, or seven albums, but I’ll definitely have a record company. I see different things under the Black Radio umbrella. It’s not something I’m washing my hands of.”