Robert Glasper is one of the most creative and eclectic jazz pianists in the country today. With one hand steeped in the Herbie Hancock school of jazz, the other in almost every genre imaginable, Glasper has forged new alliances between jazz and hip-hop, rock, R&B, funk, and even country. His band, Robert Glasper Experiment, will perform at Jazz Fest this Saturday at Opti Park. I caught up with him on the phone Wednesday afternoon.
Who are you bringing to Jazz Fest with you on Saturday?
I’m bringing my Experiment band, so Derrick Hodge on bass, Mark Colenberg on drums, and Casey Benjamin on saxophone and vocoder. The drummer is a new addition to the group.
How much of the concert with be the funk, hip-hop, urban thing that you do, and how much will be jazz.
It varies. There’s going to be a lot of hip-hop and jazz fusion. But I’m not going to do any acoustic trio, mainly the jazz-hip-hop fusion stuff that’s on most of my albums. A lot of the stuff is going to be from the latest record Black Radio. But then you never know, I may throw in a solo piano piece. It all depends on the vibe, how the piano is, how the crowd is, how the venue is.
How will you alter the arrangements, say, of some of the cuts on Black Radio to fit a “live” concert?
A lot of times when we convey those songs, Casey plays vocoder, which is basically playing through a computer and a keyboard, so you can hear the lyric. You know, he talks into it, kind of like Herbie in the seventies. So we can portray some of those songs because he can sing the lyric. Some songs we leave alone because they don’t translate well without the singers. But some do translate well with just us. So we do that, and we do a lot more stretching than on the record. The record’s pretty much a package thing, has to be a certain time limit. When we do stuff live it’s a lot more exciting.
Tell me about Hermione (from Black Radio).
That’s a David Bowie song, off his album Space Oddity. It’s a short song. Not many people know it; it’s like an interlude. It’s only like two minutes long on his album. But I’ve always loved that song, so when it was time to do this record, I wanted to do a cover that people weren’t that familiar with, as well as, do covers that people were familiar with.
What’s behind the name of the song "Dillatude?"
That’s from the In My Element record (2007). There was a hip-hop producer named Jay Dilla who passed away in 2004. He was a friend of mine and one of my main inspirations, for playing the way we play and playing hip-hop music. So I just named that after him, and we did a bunch of his songs.
You seem to divide your playing time equally between acoustic piano and vintage Rhodes. What does each do for you?
It depends on the song, certain colors that I like. The Rhodes gives me what the piano doesn’t, and vice versa. Sometimes when I play a song that’s really electric, I play piano solos because it cuts through, and keeps it grounded and organic. Even if I have to play a keyboard with an acoustic piano sound... I always try to keep the grand piano sound in there.
Your Rhodes sound is pretty pure, no phase, no chorus...
Yeah, I 'm not a big fan of a whole lot of extra shit. I leave that up to Casey. He has all those sound effects. I think it keeps our group balanced, you know, to have an organic Rhodes and grand piano
How do you compose? Is it a group thing? Do you lock yourself in a room?
No, I actually try not to force it at all. I let the songs come to me. So, I always keep a recording device with me, usually my phone. You have a voice recorder on your phone, so you can just record ideas on your phone. If I’m on the subway or at a restaurant, or anywhere—that’s when the music hits you. It doesn’t hit you when you sit down at the piano to write. You don’t really have a choice for when the music hits you. So, I always just try to be ready, so when it does hit me, I can put the idea in my phone, sing the melody or the rhythm, whatever, the bass line, so that when I get home, get to the piano, I can realize it. Then I present it to my band, and we play around with it, jam with it, see where it takes you from there. When they start playing it, a lot of times it takes on a whole different color that what I expected.
So, where do your chord progressions and your melodies come from?
Uh, I don’t know. I guess they’re just part of who I am, my story. I don’t copy from anyone, but I’m sure that throughout the years, all the people I’ve listened to, playing in church a lot, playing in R&B bands, and being a jazz head, and playing in a hip-hop band. All of those things make me have a certain style of playing.
So that leads me to my next question, who are your major influences, people you listen to? You’ve been compared with Herbie, of course, and I hear a lot of Chick in your playing. So, who are some of the other piano gurus in your life?
Uhm, I’m not gonna mention 'em (laughter), for that specific reason, because they haunt me for the rest of my life.
But you’re so ecelectic, it’d be interesting to know... like, is there some Phineas Newborn in there somewhere?
I love Phineas. But I stop saying who my heroes are because what happens is, people start listening for the heroes, and not listening, uhm, for me. I think that’s the downfall of music now, because that’s pretty much what people do. They didn’t really do that with Herbie, or Chick, back when they debuted. But jazz is so old now, in a lot of people’s minds, it’s done. But you have to get the shit from somewhere. I’ll tell you one, Mulgrew Miller.
I love Mulgrew! Is he still around?
Exactly. I say that because a lot of people don’t know about him. He had a stroke a while ago, but he’s back, and he’s killin’. So yeah, he’s definitely one of my heroes.
Which do you prefer, studio or live performance?
Live performance without a doubt. With live performance you don’t have to think. The studio makes you think, think how you’re going to package up this moment in time. And sell it, you know what I mean, because at the end of the day, it’s a product. Live performance is a lot freer. This is a moment in time, it’s going to pass. Of course people are going to Youtube it, but it doesn’t affect what I’m doing at the moment.
Are there ever live moments you wish you could have recorded?
Definitely. But there’s always someone out there Youtubing it.
For better or for worse?
Exactly! For better or for worse (laughs).
I know you’re not going to want to answer this question, but, how do you label what you do?
Well, it’s jazz with a whole lot of other influences in there. It’s jazz, it’s R&B, it’s hip-hop, it’s soul music. It’s rock at times. That’s why I call it Experiment, because I experiment with all types of music. At times it’s country music, at times it’s pop. I’ve done so many things and crossed so many genres. I used to play with Carly Simon. So, I genuinely have a love for different music. Like, I’ll go on tour with Bonnie Raitt in a heartbeat, with Bruce Hornsby. There’s just so many people I love, and the music’s all different. This band is the same way. Everybody in my band has done tours and recorded with a lot of different people, genres, so we don’t see genre, at all.
So, how do you prepare to get up on stage and play? Do you get nervous, have any jitters at first?
Nope. I have a drink. (laughs)
Okay. What’s your drink of choice?
Vodka! Or white wine. Gray Goose or a good Chardonnay. But I don’t get nervous, I just get anxious, sometimes. Like, ready to play.
When did you realize, Man this is what I have to do for the rest of my life? When did that moment happen?
I don’t remember the moment, but I knew, when I was a senior in high school, this is what I wanted to do.
Were you gigging a lot then?
No. But I was playing a lot of churches. I played three churches. I played at Baptist church, a Catholic church, and a Seven Day Adventist church. The Catholic church was very hip, like in the movie Sister Act. They’d sing Bible verses to jazz standards like Green Dolphin Street.
Well, thanks again Robert. I look forward to catching you at Jazz Fest.
I look forward to being there.