Glasper Offers Strong Blend, Bold Words in Chicago


Robert Glasper (left), Casey Benjamin, Derrick Hodge and Mark Colenburg are The Robert Glasper Experiment. Their new album, ArtScience, is due Sept. 16.

(Photo: Courtesy Blue Note Records)

Robert Glasper was in a playful mood Sept. 9 at Chicago’s Jazz Showcase. Performing with his trio—bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Damion Reid—the pianist opened his late set with a question put to him by an interviewer earlier that day: “Jazz, what is it?”

Glasper toyed around with his response, poking fun at what it could mean while suggesting a mild degree of exasperation. But he soon arrived at an answer that felt both satisfactory and deeply personal: “For me it’s feel-good music.”

It was a rhetorical volley that seemed as insoluble as the question that prompted it—“feel-good music” transcends jazz, suggesting any number of style permutations—but completely reasonable nonetheless, perhaps even designed to incite mild controversy among the jazz orthodoxy.

Having picked up two Grammys in the r&b category with his other working group, the Robert Glasper Experiment—first for 2012 disc Black Radio (Blue Note) and again for a track on the 2015 follow-up, Black Radio 2 (Blue Note)—the leader seems less interested in defining jazz than diversifying his own brand. The latest evidence of that is the Experiment’s album ArtScience (due Sept. 16 on Blue Note).

The forthcoming album finds the stylistically fluid quartet guided more by intuition than tradition, connecting post-bop and hip-hop within a few minutes on album opener “This Is Not Fear,” darting through zig-zag prog-fusion on “Find You” and foregrounding a rare yet casually assured turn on the mic by Glasper on the honeyed r&b travelogue “Thinkin Bout You.”

The diversification extends beyond music with Chicago-based roaster Dark Matter Coffee brewing an exclusive ArtScience blend to celebrate the new set.

Ahead of the final evening of a Jazz Showcase residency with his trio, Glasper visited the Dark Matter cafe, in the Humboldt Park neighborhood, for a laid-back afternoon listening party. The event served as a preview of the new album for a coterie of local jazz musicians and taste-making DJs.

When reminded of the head-scratching question that prefaced his Sept. 9 set, Glasper responded quickly, suggesting he’d heard it many times before.

“Jazz is the only genre of music that asks that question,” he said. “Nobody’s sitting there saying, ‘What is hip-hop?’ ‘What is r&b?’ ‘What is rock?’ ‘What is country?’ We’re obsessed with that question. We police it to the point where it doesn’t grow, and then we complain that no one cares about it.” Then he delivered a brutally honest assessment: “Yes, because you’re not relevant.”

“The people in jazz and the world of jazz choose to shoot themselves in the foot all the time, then complain that they can’t run the race with everybody else,” he explained. “Yeah, because you shot yourself in the foot—you’re limping,” he surmised with a chuckle, dressed casually in blue jeans and a T-shirt adorned with the phrase RACISM SUCKS printed in all capital letters.

So is ArtScience an extension of the jazz tradition? Is it intended to help jazz grow? “Nope, not at all,” Glasper said firmly. “The new album is just us as four African-American musicians whose ancestors have given the world so many styles of music. We’re exploring those styles.”

Pressed to draw a line between the mission of the Experiment and his acoustic trio, Glasper was diplomatic. “They’re both jazz outlets, depending on what your definition of jazz is,” he offered. “If you’re not futuristic in your thinking and won’t let jazz move, your perception of jazz is something else.”

Glasper’s perception of the genre allows both groups ample room to explore, all the while rooted in a simmering update on quite storm and r&b. The differences between the two outfits are by design: the Experiment reigns in its arrangements and dials back solos, while the trio setting provides the keyboardist an opportunity to stretch out with a set list eschewing well-worn standards in favor of contemporary influences and Glasper standbys, anchored by Archer and Reid’s lockstep syncopation.

At the Jazz Showcase, the trio opened with a pulsating rendition of Prince’s “Sign ‘O’ The Times,” which rode on a funky patter of Reid’s ghost strokes as Glasper liquefied the verses into a warm reflecting pool of pastels, inviting his growing crossover audience to dip their toes in.

Next, Glasper introduced a breezy take on Herbie Hancock’s sly jazz-funk classic “Tell Me A Bedtime Story” (also featured on ArtScience), preceded by the revelation that he’s currently co-producing the jazz icon’s next album with Terrace Martin, key collaborator of critically acclaimed rapper Kendrick Lamar.

Glasper, who played on Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, nodded to that ground-breaking disc in his Jazz Showcase set when the trio unspooled a somber waltz version of “How Much A Dollar Cost,” augmenting the arrangement by playing the recording of Harry Belafonte’s wistful monologue that appears on “Got Over” from the trio’s 2015 album, Covered (Blue Note).

With a set list pulled largely from Glasper’s discography, the lithe combo pranced through the tender “F.T.B.” (perhaps better recognized as the Ledisi-featuring standout “Gonna Be Alright” on Black Radio), followed by “In Case You Forgot,” a Glasper original and the only tune of the evening that touched on swing.

An interlude of the Stevie Wonder–penned Michael Jackson mainstay “I Can’t Help It” set up an elegant rendition of Musiq Soulchild’s ode to femininity, “So Beautiful,” before closing with an undulating encore of “Levels” by Bilal, another genre-colliding artist in Glasper’s inner circle.

The 38-year-old pianist leaves plenty of room to breathe in his groove-laden arrangements, gracefully navigating the divide between an updated amalgam of “urban contemporary” and smooth jazz.

For all the fiery talk about moving jazz forward and transcending genre, Glasper is giving the people what they want, or what he thinks they want—identifying a happy medium and rendering it in a way that’s authentic to him. Whether or not it scans as jazz may be irrelevant.

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