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“Jazz needs a wake-up call.”
That’s renowned jazz keyboardist Robert Glasper’s take on the art form he has spent his already-storied career exploring.
With his own piano-led trio, Glasper, a 34-year-old native of Houston and graduate of the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York City, made it plain to the world that he has the chops, the vocabulary and the harmonic intelligence to know of what he speaks.


With his Robert Glasper Experiment, he capitalizes on that knowledge, searching for new hybrids, oft overlooked convergences, and the less-than-obvious approach to, in his words, “mingling with the modernistic.”
Through the Experiment’s well-received “Black Radio” album, and the about to be released “Black Radio Recovered: The Remix EP,” Glasper and his cohorts have boldly married jazz to hip-hop and soul, and covered a wide swath of “modernistic” sounds. It is music that defies easy genre classification. In concert, Glasper might seamlessly hitch Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” to Radiohead’s “Everything in Its Right Place.” On record, he and his bandmates treat David Bowie’s deep-cut “Letter to Hermione” to the same sort of stylistic makeover granted Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue.” All are delivered with musical fearlessness.
Fresh from a high-profile date in London as part of the 2012 iTunes Festival, Glasper spoke to The News by phone – “I’m jet-lagged and wiped out, but good otherwise,” he laughed – in anticipation of the Glasper Experiment’s 8 p.m. show Saturday at the Tralf Music Hall.
Not surprisingly, he had plenty of thoughts to share on the current state of jazz.
Do you get the impression that people are beginning to drop their preconceptions regarding what jazz is or isn’t, and learning to just plain listen?
Slowly but surely, man, slowly but surely.
The thing is, with the older generation of listeners, there’s a disconnect there that just is not going to be an easy thing to get past. I’m not trying to change these people’s minds. It’s not worth it. I don’t think their minds can be changed, anyway, so why worry about it?
But with kids, well, it’s a different story. There is no reason a kid won’t want to listen to a Charlie Parker solo. And yet, for them, they aren’t carrying all of this baggage, so they are more likely to accept hip-hop intermingling with jazz. That’s my main thing – to get the younger people into it, because they are the ones who will carry the legacy of jazz forward in new and exciting directions.
Part of the magic in what you’ve done with “Black Radio” and with the new “Remix EP” can be pinpointed to the way you’ve taken jazz out of the museum and reacquainted it with the real world.
Yeah man, that’s exactly what I want to do. I want jazz to be mingling with the strippers again. (Laughs.) Because remember that’s where it came from. These cats were backing strippers. Jazz was the hip-hop of its day.
Although there is no harmonic connection between the two, I do often hear jazz-style phrasing in the best hip-hop.
Hip-hop came from jazz, definitely. It didn’t come from polka. (Laughs.) A lot of the phrasing is the same. So really, we are just taking that idea forward.
Many of the supposed “protectors” of jazz have had a terrible problem with the music assimilating new influences over the years. I’m reminded of (renowned jazz critic) Stanley Crouch lambasting Miles Davis when Miles began to favor rhythm and melody over dense harmony, and bringing in funk in lieu of the traditional swing.
Innovative people have always been targets for abuse from close-minded people who are afraid of change. A true musician is open-minded, and knows that change is good, necessary, and inevitable.
“The thing is, ’Trane [saxophonist John Coltrane] was not praised at the time he was doing his most innovative work. He’s praised now, because people finally caught up to what he was doing. But at the time, they called it “fire alarm music,” (laughs) because he’d start playing that [expletive] and the room would clear out like somebody had pulled the fire alarm!
Geniuses are ahead of their time. It takes the rest of the world a while to catch up with them. You can definitely say that about Miles, too. You know what he’d be doing if he was with us now? He’d be integrating hip-hop, because he always wanted the music to reflect the street, what people were listening to. He didn’t want to relive the past. When they’d ask him why he changed, he’d say, “Because I already did all that other [expletive].” And he was right.
Hasn’t jazz always been about the assimilation of new and varied influences? Isn’t that what the music is supposed to do?
That’s right. That’s right. I’m at the point where I don’t even give a [expletive] what anyone calls my music. (Laughs.) I say, “Do you like it? Does it move you?” If the answer’s yes, good. If it isn’t, oh well. Don’t listen. What label they need to put on it, well, that just doesn’t interest me. If you want to call it R&B, go ahead. If you want to call it jazz, fine.
You know, jazz is the house with the most rooms in it. It’s still alive and moving. There are so many different aspects of the music. It can’t be defined, really, because it shouldn’t sit still long enough to be defined.
With the Robert Glasper Experiment, Casey Benjamin has always used the vocoder [a voice synthesizer] in a high-profile manner during your live shows. With the new album’s material in particular, is the vocoder being used to take over the role handled by the vocals on the album itself?
The vocoder has always been there with the Experiment, because when you are looking at a live quartet, the traditional thing would be for a saxophone to take that role, and maybe to make it more modern, the sax player would run his horn through effects pedals and all of that [expletive]. That’s cool, but it’s been done already. The vocoder allows us to do some crazy stuff that’s different, that hasn’t been done to death already.
Here in Buffalo, what you’re doing is not an alien thing to a certain aspect of the local music scene. We’re seeing these incredible jam sessions in town, gigs where funk, jazz, rock, hip-hop and soul musicians are sharing the bandstand. DJs, horn players and guitarists might collaborate on an improvisation-based gig, and there is a common language there.
That’s great to hear, because that is totally where it’s at. That’s how the music will stay alive, and that’s how it will move forward and stay relevant to people as it moves forward.
And again, it’s all about the kids, in a sense – they’re the ones who will be carrying the music forward.”

email: jmiers@buffnews.com