Everyone who’s up for an award says that it’s an honor just be nominated, but that sentiment was a bit more believeable for Robert Glasper, a jazz keyboardist who found himself competing against the higher-profile likes of R. Kelly and Tyrese for the Best R&B Album statuette at the 2013 Grammy Awards.
“I’ve walked the red carpet before,” says Glasper, who performed at the 2010 ceremony backing neo-soul singer Maxwell, “but to walk down the red carpet knowing what I was nominated for was a whole different vibe. I loved the fact that I’m a jazz cat and so many people didn’t know who the fuck we were.”
What was even more shocking was that the Robert Glasper Experiment’s Black Radio actually won the award. The album was a fusion of jazz and soul styles that featured guest appearances by a host of R&B and hip-stars including Mos Def, Erykah Badu, and Ledisi – who the RGE will open for at the Tower Theater on May 1.
Glasper fully expected to go home empty-handed, though he felt that if anything the band had a shot at the Best R&B Performance award for which they were also nominated. When Usher beat them out for that honor, Glasper says, “I was like, ‘Ok, I see where this is going. We’re not winning.’ But when they said our name, it was amazing. I feel like we won for so many other people, struggling artists who’ve done great music but because of the way the machine is built right now, real music with integrity doesn’t get any mainstream love. This really opened some doors and gave a lot of artists hope.”
Glasper’s 2013 follow-up, Black Radio 2 (Blue Note), features an even more star-studded line-up than its predecessor, with appearances by Common, Brandy, Snoop Dogg, Jill Scott, and Anthony Hamilton, among others. Live, the band itself takes the spotlight, with multi-instrumentalist Casey Benjamin substituting vocoder for some of the vocal songs from the two Black Radio albums – though it wouldn’t be surprising to see the evening’s headliner joining the band as well.
When I spoke to Glasper in late 2011, just prior to the release of the first Black Radio, he called the album “more of a music record for me” than a specically jazz or R&B album effort. “I’m a big house of many rooms, made up of a lot of different things. Jazz is one of them, but there’s a lot of other stuff in there. This is my way of putting all my rooms together and making a thought. I’d rather somebody not be able to totally define stuff that I do right off the top, because that brings a certain normalcy to it. And jazz could use some abnormal shit, to be honest.”
This time around, he’s more ready to place a label on the sequel. Speaking just after the release of the album last October while en route to Washington, D.C., he said, “This record is pretty much a soul/R&B/hip-hop album with small sprinkles of jazz here and there. I did that purposely since we won the Grammy and now we’re in that R&B realm. We have to go straight to radio, we have to lead with a single. I’ve never had to do that before. Jazz musicians don’t have to think about radio [laughs].”
Even without that dig at the music’s relative popularity (or lack thereof), jazz purists might take offence at Glasper’s move even further away from what they perceive as his jazz roots. But his tastes and inclinations have never been that easily definable, he says. “I love R&B music. That’s what I grew up on; I didn’t grow up on jazz. I grew up on Boyz II Men and Jodeci and Faith Evans. That’s my first love. We can always go back and play a blues whenever we want to.”
If that sounds like a calculated move, that’s Glasper’s intent. He doesn’t share so many artists’ aversion to figuring business concerns into his artistic decisions. “Right now we have a chance to appeal to an audience that we didn’t have before,” he explains. “A lot of musicians don’t think strategically. They just put out records without putting any effort or thought into them. At the end of the day this is a business.”
Of course, the callousness of that attitude is allayed somewhat by the strength of Glasper’s musical output. After a series of well-received jazz releases that increasingly folded hip-hop and soul tropes into the mix, he emerged with Black Radio, a successful hybrid that wove jazz’s improvisatory feel into R&B forms. Black Radio 2 certainly moves further away from jazz, but the Experiment’s gift for communication and groove gives the songs a stronger than usual musical backbone.
“We’re really good musicians who are blessed to play different styles of music,” Glasper says. “Everything I play doesn’t have to have jazz in it. That would actually be a lack of musicianship. If you’re a church musician and everything you play sounds like church, that means you’re not playing the specific vibe of whatever music you’re playing. It takes discipline and musicianship to do that. Normally we’re so outside the box; it took a different kind of imagination to say inside the box.”
Born in Houston, Texas, in 1978, Glasper was raised on music. His mother sang and played piano on jazz, R&B and country gigs and was the music director at the family’s church. He studied at Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts and New York’s New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, where he met many of the artists he’d work with in both the jazz and R&B worlds, including Benjamin and Philly neo-soul singer Bilal.
It was the latter who initiated Glasper into the hip-hop world, as the two worked with producer J Dilla, who later introduced Glasper to rappers Q-Tip and Common. He’s gone on to tour as Q-Tip’s pianist and work as music director for Mos Def (aka Yasiin Bey).
When he released Black Radio, Glasper hoped it would be a wake-up call for what he saw as a complacent jazz scene as well as a further entrée into the R&B world. It ended up working better than he could have imagined. “It pretty much became an underground movement,” he says. “Underground and aboveground, really. When I saw all the love and respect that it was getting, when people were saying how influential the sound was and how important it was for this album to be out, I think that’s when I decided to go ahead and do a part two.”
As opposed to the loose, collegial vibe of the first album, which largely comprised cover songs and pieces written or arranged on the fly in the studio, Black Radio 2 is dominated by original tunes, for which Glasper collaborated with several R&B songwriters. He doesn’t foresee doing a Black Radio 3, but is toying with several ideas, including a Black Radio-style gospel album and a jazz trio record.
“With Black Radio we definitely made the jazz world proud and also woke up the mainstream side of R&B and hip-hop,” he says. “When we won that Grammy, it put us on a whole different pedestal. Now we have the attention of a lot of people and can do what we want to do.”
The Robert Glasper Experiment performs at the Tower Theater with Ledisi on Thursday, May 1st. Tickets and information on the show can be found here.