In too many circles there remains a divide between what is regarded as “real” jazz, or “trad” jazz, and what is termed “contemporary” jazz. Somehow, the “contemporary” stuff can get relegated–at least to some–to a sort of lower level on the music prestige totem. This Thursday (November 7), contemporary jazz pianist Robert Glasper brings his Experiment to the Civic Theatre to prove such superlatives are unnecessary.
If there’s one thing New Orleanians should know about music, it is that “real” jazz is lived, more so than it is learned. In an interview this week with rising jazz prodigy Robert Glasper, OffBeat had the opportunity to speak with the boundary-pusher about the definition of jazz, what inspires his collaborations, and his upcoming concert in New Orleans.
While some music critics struggle to assign the genre of jazz to Glasper’s sound, respected music authorities such as Questlove of The Roots describe what Glasper does with his music as “trigonometry.” Illustrations like this conjure up echoes of Miles Davis, and in fact, when asked what it is he does, Glasper says, “it’s no different than what Miles [Davis] or [John] Coltrane or Wayne Shorter or Herbie Hancock have done. Jazz doesn’t come from nowhere — it is a hybrid of a bunch of different music. Those guys took what was relevant in their time period and infused it into their music.”
On Black Radio 2, the Robert Glasper Experiment’s (RGX) most recent album, every song but the intro and the outro feature guest vocalists. From rappers like Snoop Dogg, Common and Jean Grae, to R&B singers such as Jill Scott, Faith Evans and Anthony Hamilton, Glasper’s sixth studio album is an all-star revue of contemporary soul. Of his decision to work with so many other artists on both of his recent projects, Glasper explains that “it’s a concept album. The point is to collaborate, kind of like a juke joint concept.”
Some critics also question Glasper’s inclusion of hip-hop in his sound, and on this he reminds us that jazz is an expression of experience, and that many new genres of music have influenced us since the dawn of jazz. “If you ignore your influences, you’re trying to be something you’re not.” So then, is hip-hop jazz? “Jazz is gumbo, and no one’s gumbo tastes just like anyone else’s. This is my goddamn gumbo. And you can’t tell me what I can put in my gumbo.”
Glasper spoke on the profound simplicity of creating music that reflects a personal experience. “As jazz musicians of the younger generation, older people constantly want us to know their jazz like we lived it, but we didn’t — we learned it. I didn’t live Duke Ellington, I learned [Duke] in college. I lived Boys II Men, Jodeci, Faith Evans, Brandy. Their songs are the ones that take me back to nostalgic moments in my life. I didn’t have my first kiss to Duke, my moments were with Boys II Men.”
In fact, the Houston native reveals that he wrote his very first jazz tune based on a Brandy song. He recalls being inspired by the changes from a verse in the then 15-year-old pop princess’s “Love Is On Our Side, released in 1994. Those changes became the foundation of Glasper’s first jazz song. For many, a popular hip-hop MC’s take on a Robert Glasper Experiment song might be the entry point to discovering new music. Glasper is well aware that sometimes he has to “trick” people into listening to his music. He knows that for some, it is Snoop or Faith that opens the door. But he also claims that he collaborates only with artists he wants to, with those he believes have unique and powerful sounds of their own. “The only way we’re going to battle the Chris Browns and the Taylor Swifts of popular music [is to uplift new jazz artists],” Glasper opines. “Yet, I have to spend my time battling a bunch of dead guys [jazz greats], rather than challenge my own peers. Jazz is the only genre that does not uplift the new guys. In some ways, jazz is its own enemy.”
With two Grammy nominations already under his belt, and a Best R&B Album of the Year Grammy Award for last year’s Black Radio, Glasper’s perspective is obviously not one to be ignored. Though the Grammy Academy may have labeled Black Radio as R&B, he is reaching millions with his jazz–on his terms.
The Blue Note recording artist brings his current quartet, the Robert Glasper Experiment, to New Orleans this week for their first full concert. Though he has performed as a guest during larger events like Essence Fest and Jazz Fest over the past five years, this Thursday’s show will be his first opportunity to “really stretch out” in an intimate setting for a New Orleans audience (Save for 2008’s small, almost unannounced show with the Robert Glasper Trio at Snug Harbor). He notes that it would not be too shabby if say, Terence Blanchard, Nicholas Payton or his current New Orleans favorite, Trombone Shorty showed up. [hint, hint?]
Glasper’s manager and native New Orleanian, Vincent Bennett, adds that he has actually had many requests for a RGX concert in New Orleans over recent years, and was waiting on the right time and the right venue to make such a proper show happen. Though many are surprised that this will be Glasper’s first full concert in the city, Bennett says that after touring the beautifully restored and newly re-opened Civic Theatre, and having southern dates open on the band’s Black Radio 2 tour this month, he realized that this is the perfect situation for such a musical experience.
The Robert Glasper Experiment takes the stage at 8:30 p.m. this Thursday, November 7 at the Civic Theatre (510 O’Keefe Ave.) with Glasper on keys, Casey Benjamin on saxophone and vocoder, Derrick Hodge on bass and Mark Colenburg on drums. New Orleans’ own DJ RQaway opens the show at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 and available online via TicketMaster, or the day of show at the Civic Theatre box office. More Info: 504-272-0865.
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