Breathing New Life Into Jazz

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

Robert Glasper
Robert Glasper

RG: It’s supposed to be accessible to our generation. Every other music embraces the “new,” the new artists of that day. Nobody’s like, “Yeah, Chris Brown’s OK but what about Marvin Gaye? You got to check out more Marvin Gaye.” That’s what jazz does. They kill the young artists that are alive to praise the dead. It keeps the music stifled. Jazz was always the most cutting-edge music of the time, period. Now it’s at looked like “history music,” something that died already. I’m here to revive it and say it’s not dead; now it’s doing this — different songs, different vibe, different feel. But it’s still jazz.

TR: Tell us about the five albums that most influenced you.

RG: Midnight Marauders, by A Tribe Called Quest: I was young, but I had just started playing piano and when I heard “Lyrics to Go,” it totally took me for a spin. Because I grew up in Texas, there wasn’t much hip-hop. Definitely no East Coast hip-hop, just the stuff that comes on the radio, whatever was hot at that time. But when I heard that CD, I was attracted by how melodic they are and how melodic that song is. They sampled a lot of jazz. It wasn’t necessarily the lyrics, but it was the beats. I had never heard of anything like that before.

Like Water for Chocolate, by Common: That record meant a lot to me ’cause I was around during the time they were making it. That album resurrected real hip-hop at that time period [the album was released in 2000]. Me and Bilal were real close, both in college together. I would go with him to rehearsals with him and Common. I used to give Common piano lessons. The beats on that joint were like, “wow.” And Dilla produced [some songs on the album]. I met Dilla after Like Water for Chocolate came out. I went to Detroit with Bilal to work with him when Bilal went to work on his first record [1st Born Second]. We stayed with Dilla for two weeks and literally had a jam session with him every day in his basement. I just got a chance to hang with him, learn from him. I watched him make “Reminisce” off Bilal’s 1st Born Second.

Fantastic, Vol. 2, by Slum Village: For me, it’s mostly musical. With Dilla, Slum Village, the beats on that record are like, “Why’d you do that?” — just sonically, how they sound. The dope thing is that I got to watch him mix songs and he would mix songs specifically for you riding in your car. His car was parked like seven steps from the board where he mixed. He’d mix something, print it and go right into the car and listen to it in the car. Then he’d come back and change it or whatever he needed to do. [He realized] most people listen to music in their car. Not everybody has big studio speakers.

Voodoo, by D’Angelo: That record really changed how musicians play. That was the record to translate how Dilla [made beats] to live instruments — Questlove with his drums, James Poyser [on keys]. It hits you in the chest. It’s the first real hip-hop soul album — not soul but hip-hop soul  — even more than early Mary J. Blige. For me, that’s still like R&B with some hip-hop inflections. Voodoo is just dark and on some gangsta [stuff].

Still Live, by Keith Jarrett: It was a double CD that was live with Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette and Gary Peacock on the keys. They just played standards. The piano sound on that album … I don’t know how to say it but things just sound really organic when he plays it, like he was literally making it up on the spot.

Brett Johnson is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based writer and the founder of the music and culture blog

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