Breathing New Life Into Jazz

Pianist Robert Glasper blends different genres to create accessible music for a new generation.

Robert Glasper
Robert Glasper

Jazz pianist and bandleader Robert Glasper is serious about his music. But when it came to naming his forthcoming album Black Radio, he loosely based it on a joke rapper Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) told him. “You [know] the black box in the airplane, some people call it the black radio,” Glasper explains. “He was like, ‘In a plane crash the only thing to survive is the black radio, so why don’t they make the whole plane out of that?’ “

For Glasper, applying a bit of that logic to the music business is not a huge stretch. “I have a thing with that, meaning good music and good black music will always survive no matter what happens in the music industry,” he continues. “No matter how much horrible music is being mixed and played on the radio and forced down people’s throats … you always have the black box, the black radio, that holds the truth of real music.”

On his latest effort, he offers an example of that “real music.” The disc is a genre-blurring, 12-track set that features his group, the Robert Glasper Experiment, and a list of all-star guests such as Lupe Fiasco, Erykah Badu, Bilal and Lalah Hathaway, among others. A hugely enjoyable listen, it’s built around moody textures, dreamy soul-jazz excursions and cymbal-crashing melodic rap. There’s even a vocoderized rendition of Nirvana’s alt-rock classic, “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

The Root chatted with the Houston native recently about the new disc (which is set to be released Feb. 28) and got his take on the importance of innovating within jazz. He also told us the five albums that have been most influential in shaping his unique approach to music.

The Root: After several albums as the leader of a traditional jazz group, the Robert Glasper Trio, what took so long to release Black Radio, which is your first full-length CD with your more eclectic outfit, the Robert Glasper Experiment? 

Robert Glasper: I wanted to solidify myself as a jazz pianist first. People will shoot you down quick if you do other stuff that they don’t think is jazz. They’re quick to point the finger at a black dude and pin him as a hip-hop piano player. I wanted to make my statement. That’s why I did two or three Robert Glasper Trio albums on Blue Note. Then I did this one. I wanted to build up a jazz fan base and then come after the “urbans,” the other side.

TR: What’s your response to purists who wish you’d just stick to performing jazz?

RG: I feel sorry for them and then I laugh. If everyone had that mentality, then we wouldn’t have moved from Charlie Parker. There would be no Isley Brothers, no Stevie. Everyone is influenced by other people, and they take something and they change it. It’s innovation. That’s kind of how the world works. How are you going to box in the freest music — the most experimental, most alive music, which is jazz? They don’t even understand the meaning of it if they feel that way.