The sounds of a vocoder and keytar decorate the musical landscape created by Robert Glasper and his band of talented young musicians (Casey Benjamin; saxes and vocoder, Derek Hodge, bass; Chris Dave, drums) who together make up the ‘The Robert Glasper Experiment’. If you’re thinking to yourself those instruments sound out of place in the context of jazz music, it’s about time for you to reassess your mental image of what a jazz album should sound like. After having studied music at the New School in New York he spent years honing his jazz chops and foraying occasionally into the hip hop world working with artists like Kanye West and Common and the legendary J. Dilla. Forays that helped mold the concept for The Experiment’s debut album, Black Radio.
His musical crossovers culminated in the group’s smoky debut Black Radio released in Feburary 2012 that has set the music world buzzing by creating a fresh mix of musical styles that have been explored previously by the likes of hip hop giants Tribe Called Quest and jazzmen like Herbie Hancock, both of whom he names as influences on his music.
Glasper brings traditional jazz sensibility and harmonic structuring to the world of fluid sensuous R&B vocals from artists like Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) and Lalah Hathaway (yes, that’s Donnie’s daughter). But his work on this album goes beyond the merging of two worlds.
Every one of the tracks feature tight drums and solid penetrating bass lines that one would expect on a hip-hop album with vocals that one would expect to hear on soul and R&B records. Glasper and co. provide fresh, complex instrumental accompaniments on all the tracks that give the album a hazy sensual vibe while remaining intellectually exciting for true jazzheads. On certain cuts including his cover of Mongo Santamaria’s classic Latin tune ‘Afro Blue’ he exercises a delicious restraint embellishing Erykah Badu’s vocals with flurries of notes, without ever veering into a true solo. Unlike Glasper’s first project, Black Radio is not meant to focus on his own talent, but rather explore and generate a concept. A concept that is perhaps best exemplified by his cover of Cobain’s ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ a song that Glasper says he admires for it’s melodic beauty and the interesting chord changes. While the album seems to be brimming with covers, on originals like ‘Ah Yeah’ featuring Musiq Soulchild and Chrisette Michelle, the Rhodes organ and drum snaps are sexy and original. And on others like ‘Why Do We Try’ that begins with Stokley’s warm vocal overtones cushioned by vocoder harmonies, Glasper’s solo produces an angularity that is challenging and pleasing at once.
Though some critics have said essentially ‘that ain’t jazz’ Glasper told Public Radio International’s Bullseye that Black Radio was meant to move the jazz world out of its current period of stagnation. “All [jazz] ever did was change. That’s the spirit of it. That’s what I’m doing. I’m playing jazz that’s 2012”. That certainly seems to be the case, and now we’re eagerly awaiting what 2013 will bring.
Hillary Donnell, London