Catching Up With Robert Glasper
Anyone who says that jazz music is boring or dead has obviously never heard of Robert Glasper. I say that because Robert’s work represents all of the things that make jazz alive. As a pianist, he exhibits a mastery of his craft while contributing to the evolution of the genre. His music is innovative, structured, relevant and original. It’s no wonder that he has worked with a very long list of artists spanning multiple genres, from hip hop artists like Q-Tip and Mos Def to soul artists like Maxwell, Bilal and Ledisi to name a few. Robert performs often with two groups, the Robert Glasper Trio and the Robert Glasper Experiment and his most recent album, Double Booked, is divided into music from both groups. We recently had a great conversation about his musical influences, how he creates songs, and the future of jazz music.
Mimi: Which three words would you choose to describe what jazz means to you?
Robert: spirit, freedom and now
Mimi: If you were to think back to the moment when you first became interested in jazz music, what moment would that be?
Robert: It would be moments when I was around the house with my mom and she was playing Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald. She used to play records and there’s a specific song called What a Little Moonlight Can Do. She used to play that all the time around the house and that’s what made me interested. I was a pianist at the time and playing more gospel but then I heard this kinda jazz. Oscar Peterson is like the one jazz musician that I know that really has a gospel piano touch. So, it kinda intrigued me. I would say that was one of the things that caught my ear and started me on this track.
Mimi: It’s cool that one of your groups is called the Robert Glasper Experiment. Thinking about the concept of an experiment, when you’re creating a new song, do you have a plan or do you just sit at the piano and see what happens?
Robert: We see what happens. Luckily in the Experiment band, those guys are so talented. Those are like my favorite musicians on their respective instruments. I trust them so much and they’re all extremely creative. So, it’s one of those things where I sit down and we just kinda go. (laughing) When I write songs, I don’t write down much at all, if I even write it down because I kinda want them all to bring themselves into it, which would take it to a higher level than it would if I were to write everybody’s part out. It’s really a collective effort so that’s why it’s an experiment because we never really know what’s gonna happen.
Most of the time we don’t even know what songs we’re gonna play. We kinda go on stage and just go. (laughing) Somebody will suggest a song and we’ll kinda go there or a lot of times we make up songs on the spot. It’s really an experiment for real. At the same time, we play things that the average person who doesn’t listen to jazz knows. We’ll play songs off the radio but at the same time we’ll play A Love Supreme. We’re one of those bands that has a little bit for everybody and that’s what we naturally do.
Mimi: How do you decide which Experiment songs to put on an album when the song creation happens so organically?
Robert: Well, see that’s gonna be the dilemma with this new record I’m recording in June. It’s gonna be all organic. All of my records up until now are Trio, except for the last one Double Booked, which was half Trio and half Experiment. For the Experiment album, we’re trying to give you a taste of what the vibe is because we’re not a hip hop band and we’re not a fusion band. We’re not this band or that band. We play all kinds of stuff. I try to just choose the songs that kind of let you get a feel for all the different kinds of things we can do. It’s gonna be harder with this next record because it’s gonna be a whole record. So, we’re gonna try to make something that you can listen to all the way through without being random.
You gotta find that balance of intellectual jazzism and things that people who have no kind of connection to jazz can grasp all on the same record. Herbie Hancock was one of the first ones, if not the first one, if not the only one (laughing) to be able to actually do that. I like the fact that someone could come up to me and say “Hey, I’m a mailman. I don’t even listen to jazz and I heard your records.”
Mimi: Yeah, I think sometimes people put a stereotype on jazz as though it can’t be as fun and cool as other genres, when it really is.
Robert: Jazz is the coolest music. I’m just trying to keep that alive because jazz is still relevant. It’s still cool. Back in the day, the actors, athletes, and comedians were friends with Miles and cats like that and going to their shows and it was on a level like that. That’s how I try to keep it because I’m friends with lots of people and I’ve performed with lots of people. I’m not trying to be in a secret jazz club. (laughing) I aim to be like Stevie Wonder because it doesn’t matter what kind of music you play, you own a Stevie cd.
Mimi: What are you pulling your inspiration from these days?
Robert: Everything. I listen to folk and country music and I just did an arrangement of a Shania Twain song last night. So, I listen to anything. I’m open to whatever because I don’t have an extensive library of music. My lady has more music than I can dream of so she’s always like, “Hey, check this out”. I have a lot of people around me that check out good music.
Mimi: If you were to compose a piece that describes your journey as a musician from when you first discovered jazz until now, what would be the title and why?
Robert: Umm, the title would be something like On the Way, meaning I’m in transit. I’m not there yet. I’m on the way.
Mimi: As the leader of two groups, I’m sure you keep a busy schedule. What’s a typical music day like?
Robert: It depends on what I’m doing because it could be a few things. If I’m in New York and it’s a Trio day and I’m playing with them somewhere, I pretty much wake up in the morning, feed my son and convince him that I’m actually going to get back home at some point. (laughing) Then I go to soundcheck and what’s funny about soundcheck is that’s kind of our rehearsal. I’ve never called a separate rehearsal. We always do that at soundcheck. I’ve maybe had literally one rehearsal. Maybe. Period. In my career as a leader.
Robert: (laughing) Yeah, and actually that rehearsal wasn’t even for me really. I did a concert for two nights in New York with Bilal and Ledisi featuring my band. So, we rehearsed with them for that. But, other than that, we don’t really do rehearsals. It’s all soundcheck. I may say “here’s a new song” and we’ll try it out and then do it that night. Or, if it’s a little hard to figure out, then we’ll do it at the next soundcheck where we kind of rehearse it. But, like I said, most of the stuff I write is really open because I love for other people to be able to put their thing in it. I’ll just tell them the vibe of what I think. And, sometimes I don’t even say the vibe, I’ll just play my part and then let them flow and it becomes the song. I think that’s the best way to do things. I’m lucky to have guys that I really really love in the band. We’ve been playing together a long time.
Mimi: What’s one of your most rewarding musical experiences thus far?
Robert: Actually there are two – getting nominated for a Grammy and randomly playing Superstitious with Stevie.
Mimi: Wow, those are two “pinch yourself” moments.
Robert: Yeah, definitely. I was thinking, “Am I sitting next to Stevie? Are we sharing a piano bench right now?” (laughing)
Mimi: How do you think jazz artists can get people more excited about the genre?
Robert: Keep it current, ya know. Acknowledge jazz standards but keep looking forward and making new standards. A lot of people tend to tie jazz to just standards from back in the day. But, jazz standards are just hip songs that were played back in the day. So, let’s play hip songs now. Let’s keep it current. I think it will give jazz music a longer life because it’s already looked at as dead or in the past. But when you try it, do it justice. I came up in church and playing more than just jazz so things come naturally to me in a way. So, that’s why I can play with Maxwell, Bilal, Ledisi, Q-Tip, Mos Def or whoever it is and you probably don’t even know I play jazz. So, I also tell cats to make sure they study styles of music.
Mimi: We’ve heard about the recent cuts to school budgets, especially in the music and arts departments. If that continues, what are some of the things that the jazz community can do to help young people get interested in jazz?
Robert: I was in Chicago recently and I played at a jazz showcase for about 4 or 5 days. On Sunday, they had a matinee that kids of any age could come to. I thought that was really great because other than that, where else is a kid going to hear jazz, especially if it’s not in school? Luckily, my mother was a jazz head so that’s why I know about jazz, which made me want to go to a performing arts high school and I majored in jazz there. But, that’s not the average person’s life and I was lucky to have that. But, maybe some of these clubs could start doing matinees or having people perform and make it where kids can come and see live jazz rather than watching on tv.
Mimi: I’m going to do a play on the words double, element, and mood, which are parts of your album titles. I’ll say three phrases and you say the first thing that comes to mind.
Mimi: Something that you would pay double the price for
Robert: Hmmm…I’d pay double the price to see Stevie and Herbie play a duet concert. Figured I’d tie that in since they’ve been part of the conversation.
Mimi: One of the most important elements of jazz music
Mimi: Something that always puts you in a happy mood
Mimi: If you had to part with all of your music except three albums, which three would you keep?
Robert: Wow. That’s a hard one but I’m gonna say Sunlight by Herbie Hancock, In Rainbows by Radiohead and Speak No Evil by Wayne Shorter.
Mimi: Can you suggest a good b-side song that’s often overlooked?
Robert: On the Earth Wind and Fire album The Way of the World, there’s an interlude that’s right after the song All About Love. I’ve loved this joint for years. If you skip the track, you’ll miss it. So, you have to listen to All About Love and let it play and then all of a sudden it comes on. It’s like an interlude and it’s literally maybe a minute long.
Mimi: Aside from working on your next album, are you doing anything else this year that you want people to know about?
Robert: I’m doing a beat tape with Pete Rock so I would expect a few tracks from that to come out in the fall.
Thanks Robert for a fun chat! While we wait on his new projects, you can keep up with him at the links below. Robert is currently on tour so here’s a live performance of Downtime to entice you to check his schedule for a city near you.