When keyboardist Robert Glasper released the full-length debut from his project the Experiment in 2012, you could hear the jazz marketplace shifting. Freely drawing from hip-hop and R&B, “Black Radio” — along with its sequel “Black Radio 2" — brought Glasper out of jazz clubs and into the pop conversation, earning a wider audience, two Grammy awards and the parentage of an entire subgenre of J Dilla-referencing jazz recordings that easily could be called “post-Glasper.” He’s also part of the small coterie of jazz artists appearing on Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly.”
For his latest album, the 37-year-old Glasper has returned to his roots with “Covered,” an acoustic set recorded live at Capitol Studios with the same band from his pre-Experiment days. Mostly made up of covers, the album lets Glasper flex his eclectic taste, covering Jhene Aiko’s “The Worst” and “Stella by Starlight” with equal flair. The pianist gets particularly restless on “In Case You Forgot, " which over 13 tangled minutes winks toward history with a few bars of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time,” a song Miles Davis was criticized for covering late in his career.
Whether Glasper would sound good in this format was never in doubt, but there is a sense that he’s not surprising us, either. The jazz connection with Joni Mitchell was established before his lilting cover of “Barangrill,” and while Glasper’s take on “Reckoner” deftly channels the song’s cascading piano riff, Radiohead hasn’t been a revolutionary cover choice for jazz artists since Brad Mehldau was the genre’s next piano star. A nod toward Lamar with the album-closing “I’m Dying of Thirst” soberly reflects the times with children reciting the names of unarmed black lives lost to violence, but it also recalls a piece from his label mate Ambrose Akinmusire’s 2014 album.
Amid so much rewarding yet familiar ground, “Covered” sounds more like a step sideways rather than forward. Glasper has enough creativity in him to support two distinct musical identities. It will be fascinating to hear what happens when they finally come together.
Glasper performs with his trio 9 p.m. Wednesday at the El Rey Theatre, 5515 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. $27-$37. https://www.elreytheater.com.
Two and a half stars