Something curious has been happening on the music landscape lately. In the span of a few weeks, a jazz artist with a critically lauded new album has hit the late-night TV circuit with performances on the David Letterman and Jay Leno shows, debuted at No. 15 on the Billboard pop chart, and performed a packed-to-the-rafters showcase at Austin, Texas’ annual rock ‘n’ roll smorgasbord, SXSW. And the strangest part? The musician’s name isn’t Esperanza Spalding.
The artist in question is Houston-born pianist Robert Glasper, and his new album on Blue Note Records has become one of the top stories of the year by taking jazz to all sorts of unexpected places. Steeped in R&B and funk with flashes of synthesizer and vocoder and genre-crossing guests who include Erykah Badu, Lupe Fiasco and Meshell Ndegeocello, “Black Radio” has many questioning whether it’s still a jazz record. But Glasper doesn’t put much stock in the debate.
“This is what jazz sounds like now,” Glasper said, speaking by phone from a tour stop last week in San Jose. (Glasper plays the second of two nights at the Exchange in downtown L.A. on Thursday.) “If it would’ve kept evolving and everybody was OK with it evolving, this is where it would be, I think ... a mixture of all kinds of [music], which is what it always has been.
“To be honest, I’m a jazz musician who put out a record that kind of mixed genres and has something that everybody can enjoy,” he said. “It’s a jazz record, it’s soul, it’s hip-hop — it’s kind of everything. I don’t know what to call it.”
Jazz artists consciously targeting pop listeners isn’t a new idea, but Glasper’s approach is. Falling under the spell of hip-hop after moving to New York City as a musician, Glasper has been working toward incorporating his experiences in jam sessions with artists such as the Roots and Yasiin Bey (previously known as Mos Def, who also appears on “Black Radio”). After gradually introducing these influences into his past three unique albums that culminated with 2009’s “Double-Booked,” which was split between his trio and the Experiment, the time was right for the group to come into its own.
Working on a tight, five-day recording schedule in L.A., Glasper described a collaborative, try-anything process that was “very jazz.” Chicago artist Fiasco wrote his rap at the center of “Always Shine” on the spot, and singer Ledisi composed lyrics for her turn on “Gonna Be Alright (F.T.B.)” in just 20 minutes during a session that began at 3 a.m. And while conventional jazz solos were kept to a minimum on “Black Radio,” Glasper’s keyboards are a constant, ever-evolving presence at the core of each song, pointing to the album’s roots.
“I look at the record like a Herbie Hancock record, you know?” said soul singer-songwriter Bilal, one of Glasper’s longtime collaborators who appears on the record for two songs, including a soulful twist on David Bowie’s “Letter to Hermione.” Hancock frequently pushed the boundaries of jazz with the Headhunters and 1983’s landmark hip-hop hybrid “Rockit.”
“What Herbie Hancock did for jazz back then, he made it relevant,” Bilal added. “He made a whole new audience who had never even experienced jazz accept it and love it.”
Breaking out of conventional thinking about jazz is a driving force for Glasper, who raised a few eyebrows with an appearance in the 2009 jazz documentary “Icons Among Us.” With the matter-of-fact assurance you’d expect of a rising talent, Glasper reminded fans that John Coltrane wasn’t God and added that he hoped to one day be even better than the iconic saxophonist. Glasper laughed as he was reminded of the interview and clarified that his next sentence was an admission that of course he could never be as good as Coltrane, which landed on the cutting-room floor. But the core sentiment is unchanged.
“The jazz community kind of kills the alive to praise the dead,” he said flatly. “You look in any jazz magazine, 90% of it is old people, reissues or people who are gone already. The other 10% are new people, when it should be the opposite way.”
"[In] jazz we’re so stuck on the old days, then we get mad when there’s no new audience,” he said. “Well, why do you think there’s no new audience? You’re still playing [stuff] from 1965, that’s why.”
“If Miles was here, trust me, Miles would’ve already recorded with Usher and Rihanna,” Glasper added with a laugh.
Still firmly identifying himself as a jazz musician, Glasper isn’t leaving the genre behind as much as he’s dedicated to pushing it ahead. And with a recording bookended by Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue” andNirvana’s"Smells Like Teen Spirit” that makes both sound cut from the same cloth, Glasper isn’t concerned about any imagined musical barriers.
“My whole campaign is being honest. What are you really like? What influenced you? Who are you?” he said. “When you do that, and that’s what comes out, that’s jazz from your eyes.”
And he isn’t alone. Spalding also explored the soul music at her roots with the recently released “Radio Music Society,” and recordings from trumpter Nicholas Payton, drummer Jamire Williams and pianist Vijay Iyer also venture outside jazz tradition with either their cover choices, structures or instrumentation. Wherever this mini-movement leads, the result in Glasper’s eyes can only be a step forward.
“I think it’s a good thing,” Glasper said. “Because jazz has been stagnant for too long. At least in hip-hop stuff always happens, so you want to see the news.... Even if it’s bad.
“Jazz, nothing ever happens. It’s literally like being at an old-folks home on bingo night,” he said with a rolling, mischievous laugh. “You know? I prefer to be at a party where a fight might break out.”