When Jazz Meets Hip-Hop

In their latest albums, composers Robert Glasper and Terence Blanchard explore new sounds and arrive at common musical ground.


When it comes to integrating hip-hop and jazz, Robert Glasper has raised the bar substantially. The pianist and composer focuses on the feel of hip-hop rather than the sound, often avoiding the easy route of dressing up his music with Hip-Hop 101 guideposts—turntable wizardry, digital beats and boastful raps. His collaborations with Mos Def, Q-Tip, Bilal and Maxwell have afforded him onsite training with high-caliber hip-hop and R&B musicians. Also, Glasper’s love and understanding of the inventive soundscapes produced by Pete Rock, Madlib and the late J Dilla (arguably Glasper’s strongest hip-hop influence) greatly inform the rhythmic dynamics and spatial awareness of his piano trio and, to an even greater degree, his Experiment Band, which more explicitly displays his hip-hop brain waves.


Glasper’s approach to the piano resembles ?uestlove’s approach to the drums; he can emulate the sounds of sampled melodic phrases, repeating nuances with uncanny precision in much the same way that ?uestlove can replicate the crackling sounds of a drum machine. That ability to mimic others does not stiffen Glasper’s own engaging improvisations, which can often embrace the orchestral elasticity of Oscar Peterson or the impressionistic touch of Herbie Hancock.


His latest disc, Doubled-Booked (Blue Note), illustrates all of these sublime musical gifts. Divided into two parts, the disc documents the artistic maturation of Glasper’s acoustic trio (with bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Chris Dave) and offers the first official release of the Experiment, a decidedly electric outfit that again features Dave, along with bassist Derrick Hodge, and saxophonist and vocoder player Casey Benjamin. In lesser hands, Doubled-Booked would result in a calculated DID (dissociative identity disorder) event, with split personalities—acoustic jazz on the one hand and electric hip-hop on the other. But Glasper manages to maintain a thematic continuity and a consistent voice throughout.


For instance, his descending melody on the idyllic “Downtime” tumbles across the groove and behind the beat in Dilla-esque fashion. Glasper also incorporates some Dilla touches on his riveting rendition of Thelonious Monk’s “Think of One,” on which he slyly quotes Ahmad Jamal’s “Swahililand.”


And even though the Experiment material contains a superfluous special appearance by Mos Def on the brief “4eva” and by Bilal on the agreeable, but ultimately bland, mid-tempo “All Matter,” Glasper engages his new band mates with same vigorous improvisational interplay he has with his trio. With the Experiment, Glasper gives a stunning makeover of Hancock’s early-’70s fusion standard “Butterfly” that highlights his masterful rapport with Benjamin on the vocoder. Benjamin also shines on the flinty “Festival,” the Experiment’s most kinetic performance in which Benjamin’s wordless vocoder work glides across the rhythmic firestorm created by Dave’s ricocheting rhythms and Hodge’s molten bass lines.