Steinway Artist Robert Glasper is a jazz pianist with R&B leanings and a two-time Grammy winner for his albums Black Radio and Black Radio 2 (Blue Note) with the Robert Glasper Experiment. He spoke with Ben Finane, Editor in Chief of the print quarterly Listen: Life with Music & Culture, at New York City's Steinway Hall. Listen to the Soundboard podcast below or read an excerpt from the interview. Subscribe to Soundboard here.
An excerpt from the Steinway & Sons Soundboard interview with Steinway Artist Robert Glasper:
Robert Glasper: I check the music climate, see what I feel the universe needs and where I’m at, and then I do a project. That’s literally what I do, because I feel like when I see what’s wrong, what’s missing from the music industry, I know what I can contribute.
Ben Finane: How do you know what’s ‘wrong?’
I just listen to what everyone’s doing. I check out all the new artists coming out; I see what artists are crossing over, what’s going on. That’s actually why I went back to the trio: people in the music climate across the world were asking me to play trio. They wanted to hear me play more piano — I had just signed with Steinway, so it made sense: I had already won two R&B Grammys, so I feel comfortable stepping away from that for a second, to reveal to the R&B people what it is I really do.
So you’re telling me there’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?
Oh yeah, you have to! I mean if you don’t, it’s like masturbation. You’re just there for yourself. It depends on your thing: like everyone, I have a lot of sides to who I am, so I get to choose which part of me I get to show to the audience that I think they’ll like. If you only have one side, if you’re only one-dimensional, then you have a problem. Because you can only do one thing, and if those people don’t like the one thing you can do, well, that’s it for you. Which might be good, if you’re Jon Bon Jovi or something, then that works.
You can play Slippery When Wet for the next forty years.
Right! But if you’re a musician, it behooves you to be a little more flexible so you can play a bit to each crowd. Listen, I’m not selling out Madison Square Garden, you know? But within the audience that I do have, I know I can play to any crowd because of the different styles that I play. I cater to that. Miles [Davis] catered to that! I asked Herbie [Hancock], when I was doing the shooting for the Miles movie, “How come on all Miles’ bootlegs, I never hear stuff like ‘Pinocchio’ or ‘Nefertiti’ or ‘Riot,’ ‘Fall,’ or any of those dope tunes y’all recorded?” And he said, “At that time, when we recorded those songs, nobody knew our records.” No one knew those songs, and Miles wanted to play songs people knew. That’s why when you hear bootlegs of Miles, he’s always playing standards. It was always ‘’Round Midnight,’ ‘Stella By Starlight,’ and ‘No Greater Love’ because Miles wanted to play songs people knew.
And that is sort of what you’ve done with the ‘standards’ of today [on the album Covered]. Kids don’t know ‘Stella by Starlight,’ but they know Radiohead… Joni Mitchell’s in the songbook.
Yeah, they know Kendrick Lamar, Bilal. That’s what my climate is right now, so I’m just playing to that. And I did put ‘Stella by Starlight’ on the album, but I think I flipped it in a way that they could appreciate it whether they know that tune or not. People are always asking me about it: ‘What’s that dope tune where the drummer’s doing that beat? What’s that groove you put together?’ It made it accessible. Sometimes you’ve got to put a little seasoning on something for someone else to eat it.
How did Radiohead become the new Cole Porter Songbook?
I know, right? I think it’s their forms, their chord changes, and melody. It just lends itself to jazz. Even back in the Cole Porter days, there were songs, show tunes, all sorts of music that weren’t necessarily jazz tunes but they lend themselves to jazz. So when you fast-forward sixty or seventy years, there’s so much more music to be influenced by than Cole Porter had, than [John Col]’Trane had. There’s so much more music, so many genres have been born. So unless I’m walking around with my ears plugged, I’m going to be influenced! Especially now, in my time period, I’m going to be influenced by what’s going on — just like ’Trane was influenced by what was going on in his time period. So it’s really no different from what our fathers of jazz were doing back in the day. They were doing the hip-hop of the day. The only difference is we have more choices. But people want us to ignore our choices now and use the same material those guys used? That makes no sense, it’s not who we are. ’Trane wouldn’t be who he was if he didn’t listen to somebody else’s choices — someone fifty years older than him. It’s the same thing, just a different time period.
Let’s get into your different sides. You have more than just R&B leanings; you’ve got pop leanings; you’ve got rock leanings. Tell me about how you arrived at your particular aesthetic.
My uh… eclectic palate comes from my mom, from when she was a singer and a pianist. She did a lot of different gigs. Literally seven days a week she would do shows, and every day was a different show. She would do a jazz club gig and sing standards, then the next day do some country in a barn — an actual barn! There’s a club in Houston made up to look like a barn, with hay and everything, and she’d play country western tunes there. Another night it would be all R&B: Aretha Franklin, Chaka [Khan]. Sundays she was the music director at church. She also had a pop-rock gig, where she would do songs by Billy Joel — that’s why I’m a huge fan of his today. Elton John too, all those tunes. When I went to school it was all rock and hip-hop. I actually grew up as a skateboarder. I was one of the four black dudes in a white neighborhood; all my friends were white and we would build half-pipes, skate, and listen to rock. That’s what we did. It was Red Hot Chili Peppers, it was grunge, all that stuff. It was right around the time Nirvana first came out, when I first heard ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ — it was right around sixth grade. And when I went to performing arts high school, that’s where I started getting my jazz knowledge, because I was in a big band and a jazz combo. That’s when I started checking out more hip-hop stuff, too.
So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?
I literally don’t know how not to do that now.
I can play different styles authentically, but meshing things together comes easier to me.
How to prevent those disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing.
Yeah, yeah, exactly! It’s like a blender. All this stuff’s in the blender and this is just what it is — this is the juice, and I don’t know how to separate it. Well, I can separate it, so I won’t say I don’t know how. It’s not like one of those things where you’re a gospel musician and everything you play sounds like gospel. So I can play different styles authentically, but meshing things together comes easier to me. Playing those things authentically isn’t hard though, I’ve been playing them all my life. When it comes to hip-hop, I’ve played with most of the masters of the genre. When it comes to jazz, I’ve played with most of the masters of the genre. I’ve studied all the things I’m doing, it’s not like I’m playing at the genre because it’s cool — I’ve played onstage with people of that era. That’s so important going into anything: to study it. You can’t just pick up surgery tools and tell someone ‘Alright buddy, I’m going to cut your stomach open.’ You would never do that! And I don’t want to give people the same thing musically.
You’re playing is very sensitive, deft, it’s smooth, and I’d say you drift more toward harmony than dissonance. There is some dissonance there, but you use it judiciously. Is that a conscious decision or again, is it just an output of what goes in?
For me, when you use a lot of dissonance, or if I used that with the people in the audience I’m trying to win over, I’d lose them completely. I would totally lose them. Most times when you’re playing very dissonant, it’s only for people who understand that in the first place.
So this is a conscious populism on your part?
Oh, totally! I want people that listen to the radio to listen to my music. I feel that’s how you cross over. You’ve got to start with something they understand already, something they already have a relationship with —
A reference point.
Yes — and that’s what’s wrong with jazz today; I feel like there’s no reference to today. Most people playing jazz now, their reference is from the sixties. There are some people who are playing themselves right now, but for the most part, jazz musicians are stuck fifty years ago.
There’s also, I’d say, an unfortunate cluster of jazz musicians who consciously go toward the inaccessible and the esoteric, the ‘OK, tonight we’re going to do the tritone substitution on the—’
Exactly! And you’re just preaching to the choir — those cats never gain new fans. Their fan base is always the same, so it’s always the same people who like that and listen to it already. And I’m not knocking it — it’s good — but it’s not going to bring in a crowd. And I feel like I was put on earth for crossover. I feel that that’s what I’m here for.
Jazz has long influenced hip-hop, but now I’d say we’re at the point where hip-hop is influencing jazz. Would you say that’s a fair statement?
In your music I hear this influence in what hip-hop has been calling ‘loops’ for a long time, where the loops actually become the main material. Can you speak to that?
What’s funny is, it’s really not even new! It comes before jazz, even ’Trane knew that; it’s meditation. That’s why ’Trane would just take one chord and vamp on it. Then it’s mantra, it’s prayer, it’s that repetitiveness, it’s yoga. It’s about freeing your mind and not strict adherence to changes or showing off your knowledge of harmony. It’s quite spiritual, and for me that’s where hip-hop is coming from. Obviously hip-hop and jazz both came out of oppression and depression, you know — something really, really bad — then you have this beautiful music that came out of that. Most art is like that.
Going back to the blues.
Period. Exactly. So for me, that’s what hip-hop is. It’s like a mantra, and these two- and four-bar loops happen over and over again, putting you into a kind of trance.
‘I want to be the soundtrack to your thoughts, and I want to leave room for your thoughts.’
So where is the creativity? If I’m playing devil’s advocate and I say, ‘Oh, well this is just the same four chords over and over again…’, is the creativity in maintaining interest? Varying the coloration?
The creativity comes from how the artist makes you feel. It’s not about showing you everything I can possibly do over the beat. So when people come to my shows, I’m not necessarily trying to wow them or dazzle them with my pianistic skills. I’m trying to change how you feel, you know what I’m saying? Yeah, I didn’t play much, but you cried. I didn’t play much, but you laughed. I didn’t play much, but I had you thinking about all kinds of things. Sometimes I like to leave space and let your mind be the creative thing that imagines something. It’s a mutual relationship. I always say it’s like I’m providing the apartment, but I’m going to let you move in all your furniture. That’s where the creativity is. It’s like when you’re getting a massage: they purposefully don’t play music with a lot going on. They play music that frees your mind, there’s just all this space for you to be in. I’d like to think I do the same thing live. I want to be the soundtrack to your thoughts, and I want to leave room for your thoughts.
But sometimes you’ll get a little more explicit. Let’s call them ‘spoken-word soundscapes,’ where you lay down what I’d call a supportive groove. You’ve got that one track with Harry Belafonte (‘Got Over’), giving a about how he got over — how he was uneducated, how his was an unlikely story. That’s happening on top, and you’re almost supporting that narrative with your music.
You know — and I’m just having this thought for the first time right now — that comes from church. In church, growing up, we would always play softly under the priest or the deacon that was saying the prayer. There was always music under the prayer, supporting it, not getting in the way. That’s where that comes from, every time I’ve done it. As musicians, we don’t have a strong voice in what’s going on in the world today: in the political climate, the stuff going on with the police, any of that. Most musicians — instrumentalists, that is — don’t have a strong voice, or even a proper platform. I could write a song for Ferguson, say, but unless someone hears me say ‘This is for Ferguson,’ they would have no idea if they heard it on the radio. The context isn’t there, and the message might get lost. If I put spoken word with it, now the message can’t get lost. It translates to everyone: Everyone speaks English, but not everyone understands music. That’s the reality. You don’t want to leave it out, or leave it to chance, especially when it’s a really important topic or viewpoint that I’m trying to get across. Let me get someone to say it, so there’s no discrepancy at all. It’s kind of like a movie, too.
Yeah, a lot of people don’t realize how much a soundtrack really makes or breaks a movie. Knowing when to have music but also when not to, to get out of the way. Knowing when to shut up is just as important as knowing when to talk. And that goes for all sorts of situations in life.
I see the Robert Glasper Experiment as sort of this jazz/R&B/hip-hop collective. I also see it as part of this trend that’s happening right now, on albums. For the longest time in hip-hop you’ve had featured rappers guesting on tracks. Now the guests are taking over and there’s really no star of the show. And of course we hear that on Kendrick Lamar’s brilliant album To Pimp a Butterfly, which you were involved in, on the keys. What kind of planning goes into a collaboration like that? Do you sit down and determine how things will unfold or do you just see where it goes?
Man, I always say the universe co-produces all my albums, because nothing ever goes the way I want it to. It’s adorable, how you have this grand idea for how it’ll all work out and…
‘The album is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.’
Thank you John, Mr. John Lennon. That is totally the vibe. What I do is, I’ll have twenty or thirty guests in my mind. For Black Radio I knew everybody, I just texted everyone. All the artists say “yeah, cool, I’m down.” But when you get to the managers and agents and record labels it’s entirely different. For some people the timing just doesn’t work out: they’re working on their own album or they’re on tour, or whatever it is. So I just throw out a wide net, and whoever’s left when I pull it back in is who I work with. So yeah, I let the universe make half of it, and just let it all unfold. It happened the same way with Kendrick’s album. He’s very of the moment, and he doesn’t think every last thing out beforehand.
Was Thelonious Monk the first hip-hop pianist?
He sure was! Definitely the first hip-hop pianist. It’s all in the attitude: he had more swag than most jazz musicians. For people who don’t know what swag is, it’s like attitude, it’s like your style. It could be anything from the way you sit to what you wear, the way you talk. Between him and Miles I don’t think it gets any more swagged out. But definitely the first hip-hop pianist. Just from the way he would comp! The way he would just loop something, that literally sounds like someone’s MPC [Akai MPC or Music Production Controller] chopping it up. Nobody came before him doing that.
So it’s no coincidence that Wu-Tang Clan and everyone has sampled Monk now.
Yeah, and I married into the family! Monk is my wife’s great-uncle... so, you know, it’s all there.