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Source Material: Robert Glasper, Black Radio

by Seth Colter Walls

Source Material: Robert Glasper, Black Radio


What do Radiohead, Thelonious Monk and J Dilla have in common? Jazz pianist Robert Glasper understands and loves them all, and more importantly, knows how to make them all cohere into a lasting vision.

On the one hand, this shouldn't be so surprising: Good music is good music. But stylistically all-over-the-place forms of jazz fusion don't have the best track record. During the '90s, as hip-hop continued its long ascendance and jazz continued its multi-decade slide from pop consciousness, there were a few attempts to make the latter newly relevant, based on contrived collisions with the former.

Very little of this really worked. However well-meaning each remix project might have been, most seemed backward-looking, which subverted the point. And not long thereafter -- as though those failures were the marketplace's final word -- a lot of big companies shuttered their jazz divisions for good. (It's tempting to imagine a meeting in which someone said, "If we can't sell something by crossing it over with rap, why are we even trying to sell it at all?")

But after the retrenchment of modern jazz artists behind boutique and independent labels, something valuable happened. The next wave of young jazz artists started making hip-hop-influenced jazz without being required to do so as part of a marketing push. You can see this in Stefon Harris' Blackout group, or in Vijay Iyer's cover of M.I.A.'s "Galang." The promise of Ron Carter's appearance on A Tribe Called Quest's The Low End Theory was seen through and redeemed.

Is it any surprise to learn that pianist Glasper has been a leading light among this wave? (It shouldn't be: He turned up on Q-Tip's last solo album, The Renaissance, playing his keyboard on "Life Is Better.") And he's had enough success with his electrified "Experiment" trio that Blue Note records got excited about reviving the long-lost search for a rap/jazz hybrid earlier this year, with Black Radio. But to simply note the resulting 2012 hit's most well-known guest stars -- like Lupe Fiasco or Yasiin Bey -- won't suffice. Even when collaborating with pop artists, Glasper is in dialog with the core jazz tradition, whether that be Herbie Hancock's fusion breakthrough, Headhunters (a pop-oriented refinement of crossover moves the pianist honed in Miles Davis' band), or the textures explored by Monk, who used a celesta to proto-Fender Rhodes-like effect on "Pannonica" way back in 1957.

Glasper's own pop affections don't stop with J Dilla or The Roots, either. Here are his thoughts on Radiohead's "Everything In Its Right Place":

For me, I'm a changes guy. I like chord progressions, and that has beautiful chord progressions. I love repeating one note and changing things around that note -- that happens a lot in that song. It lends itself to reharmonizing and reclaiming. It lends itself to jazz.

You can hear Kid A-style textures all over Black Radio: in the vocoder, in some post-production manipulations, and in Glasper's own keyboard tones. Some of the albums referenced below may seem to stand in stark contrast to one another, while others will intuitively seem part of the same tradition: Erykah Badu and Questlove, both Glasper collaborators, worked together long before the pianist came on the scene. (For the playlist, we're also including a couple tracks from the album's post-release remix EP, some of whose tunes have been kicking around Glasper's songbook for years.) If you listen along, you should hear some commonalities and distinguishing characteristics where you least suspect it.