When Jazz Meets Hip-Hop

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.

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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.

One of Glasper’s early champions was trumpeter Terence Blanchard. In fact, it’s his voice we hear first on Doubled-Booked in “Intro,” in which Blanchard invites Glasper to perform at his newly opened jazz club. While Blanchard’s music doesn’t owe as much a debt to hip-hop as Glasper’s does, the trumpeter and composer’s latest disc, Choices (Concord), reveals some overlapping sensibilities. Hodge plays electric bass in Blanchard’s group and Glasper’s Experiment, and both Doubled-Booked and Choices feature Bilal. Interestingly, Bilal sings more persuasively on Blanchard’s bossa-nova-tinged “Journey” and gorgeous ballad, “When Will You Call,” exhibiting a streamlined maturity that wasn’t as evident on his 2001 debut disc, 1st Born Second (Interscope).

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However, it’s a guest appearance by Dr. Cornel West, the noted scholar and author, that makes Choices more auspicious. The inauguration of Barack Obama may have provided the impetus for Choices, but it’s West’s philosophical ruminations that provide the guiding force. Mostly through interstitial vignettes, West waxes free-form about intellect versus wisdom (“Byus”), the significance of music on humanity (“Beethoven”), the self-reflective comparisons between philosophers and jazz artists (“Jazz Man in the World of Ideas”) and the promise of a new political era signaled by the arrival of Obama (“New Note”).

But as moving as West’s musings are, they sometimes sound awkward. Though his words may have inspired the compositions, the music doesn’t always sound as if was composed with spoken word in mind, which is interesting considering Blanchard’s long history of scoring Spike Lee’s films. He’s skillful at penning engaging music that underscores dialogue. When West’s appearances are fully incorporated in the music, as on the pensive titled-track, Crescent City-flavored “New World,” and the dreamy “Winding Roads,” the results are far more gripping and less tedious than the stand-alone interludes.

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Those blemishes aside, Choices amounts to yet another testament to Blanchard’s gifts as a scintillating trumpeter, composer and bandleader. Taking cues from the legendary Art Blakey, with whom he once worked, Blanchard surrounds himself with stellar young musicians who perhaps help forge the sense of modernity. Also like Blakey, Blanchard encourages his band members to contribute compositions. With this slightly new lineup, Fabian Almazan takes over the piano chair left by Aaron Parks and saxophonist Walter Smith III replaces Brice Winston. Along with holdovers Hodge, drummer Kendrick Scot and guitarist Lionel Loueke, they stretch and shine on all of the compositions.

Yet, it’s Blanchard’s sterling trumpet improvisations, which at times soar to cloud-scraping heights, paired with his evocative compositions that distinguish the work. The gentle “D’s Choice,” with its magnetic melodicism, has the makings of a future jazz standard as well as providing a vehicle for more adventurous R&B singers, while the elegant “Robin’s Choice,” which finds Blanchard and Smith floating and dovetailing elegantly across a bed of skittering rhythms, gives evidence that Blanchard, too, has been checking out the stylistic synthesis of Glasper.

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John Murph is a regular contributor to The Root.

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