The master-planned career of Houston’s Robert Glasper
Looking back through Robert Glasper’s discography reveals an artist comfortable with both chaos and control.
To wit, the pianist’s third album was titled “In My Element,” and then the fourth was “Double-Booked.” And he admits his Grammy-winning breakthrough album “Black Radio” was made on the fly because of a sudden and brief window opened for several musicians on his dream list of collaborators.
“But that’s jazz,” Glasper says. “That’s what it is: It’s the fumbling and how you recover. And the fearlessness that comes with knowing you’re going to fumble. Some people are not OK with that, and their (expletive) has less depth. The inspiring stuff comes out of the broken process.”
Broken processes are working for Glasper. Ten years ago he told me about his plan: Make a couple of traditional jazz recordings to get a foundation in that world before opening up further into R&B and hip-hop.
“Sounds interesting,” I told him, but what I meant was, “Good luck with that.”
Glasper’s ambition proved me shortsighted.
“Black Radio” won a best R&B album Grammy in 2005. He’s has been a fixture on R&B and hip-hop albums since, including Kendrick Lamar’s much-praised “To Pimp a Butterfly,” along with scores of others including two of last year’s buzziest albums, Maxwell’s “blackSUMMERS’night” and Anderson Paak’s “Malibu.”
Glasper is co-producing an album for Herbie Hancock, and recording songs for a solo album by Earth, Wind & Fire’s Philip Bailey. He appears along with saxophonist Kamasi Washington on the new “The Sounds of Crenshaw Vol. 1” as a member of the Polyseeds, a hybrid R&B/jazz collective organized by producer and multi-instrumentalist Terrace Martin. Glasper played at the White House last year. He co-produced “Miles Ahead,” the Grammy-winning soundtrack for Don Cheadle’s biopic about Miles Davis. And he and rapper Common just won an Emmy for “Letters To The Free,” from the Netflix original documentary “13th.”
“I’m just staring at my Emmy right now, drinking some coffee and talking to you,” he says.
Times are good for Glasper. But they’re also part of a diligently plotted path.
“Seriously, I wish I’d written all this (expletive) down,” he says, laughing. “I had this plan in my head since 1999. Do an album on a little label that does OK, move to a big label and make some straight-up jazz records that let me transform and do other (expletive).”
Glasper is aware the singers and rappers present a more public face than session players.
“Singers have teams behind them, with strategies,” he says. “A lot of musicians don’t do that. They don’t think about how opportunities are springboards for other opportunities. Some cats just like playing. And sometimes that’s enough. But I have to treat this like a business at times. And that means thinking about goals.”
To hear Glasper tell it, those goals didn’t come into focus until high school. And even then he was slow to fully commit to his instrument. He laughs talking about his project with Bailey. Glasper remembers being 12 and his mother telling him they were going to see Earth, Wind & Fire at the Astrodome for a rodeo appearance. “I didn’t want to go, and she almost spanked my butt. ‘Get up, get out of bed, we’re going to see Earth, Wind & Fire.’ ”
Glasper’s mother was a singer who’d bring him along to gigs. Kim Yvette Glasper Dobbs sang in church on Sundays. But as a professional singer, she’d customize her set for each venue. That meant nights singing jazz, blues, R&B and, occasionally, country.
When Glasper turned 16 he’d drop her off at a gig at Bistro Vino and then come pick her up at closing time. He’d play a little piano, catching the ear of the owner, who recommended the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.
“I wasn’t that serious about piano,” he says. “I could play, but I was way more into sports than music.”
When he got benched on the basketball team, “I just slid that bench over to the piano.”
Glasper kind of bluffed his way into HSPVA’s jazz program. The young keyboardist clearly had chops, but his interest in the music was still cold. During the audition, department head Robert Morgan asked Glasper about his favorite pianist. Glasper answered “Oscar Peterson.” A good answer, only Glasper didn’t know Peterson’s music. He’d seen a poster of Peterson on the wall.
But he excelled in the school, though at a more measured pace than some of his classmates.
“I remember Beyoncé and LeToya (Luckett) were there in school one day and the next day they weren’t,” he says of the Destiny’s Child singers. “Next thing I see is them singing at the Super Bowl a few days later.”
Glasper earned a spot at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York after graduation. In the late ’90s, HSPVA alumni - guys like drummer Kendrick Scott and guitarist Mike Moreno - banded together and formed a formidable core of young artists on New York’s jazz scene. He struck up a friendship at the New School with innovative R&B singer Bilal, whose records are among Glasper’s earliest credits.
But even early on he was twisting threads together. A piano trio recording, 2007′s “In My Element,” found Glasper mixing original compositions with pieces written by jazz greats like Sam Rivers and Herbie Hancock, as well as sources like rock band Radiohead and the influential hip-hop producer J Dilla.
That album also included “Tribute,” dedicated to his mother. She and her husband were murdered in their Stafford home in 2004. Glasper doesn’t often talk about it. But the breadth of the music he’s created speaks to the impression she left on him.
“She’s the entire reason I’m such a musical mutt,” he says.
Twenty years ago Glasper would likely have set the jazzerati into a red-eyed froth with “Everything Is Beautiful,” his reverent tribute to Miles Davis built on samples from the Davis archive with additional musical accompaniment.
“Every artist loves when another musician plays their songs,” Glasper says. “But it’s different when someone writes a song that’s inspired by you. That’s a different feeling entirely, and that was my point with the Miles record. To show how you influenced us, to show where music has gone because of you. Not remind you of where the music was when you were alive.
“Without rules being broken, we wouldn’t have anything interesting. Everything evolves. Everything has to evolve. Air, water, nothing is the same, it’s always moving. And for me, music is right there after air and water.”
A big laugh.
“So music should change as well.”
Glasper has played fairly regularly in Houston, including a show earlier this year for the Super Bowl week festivities. Two weeks ago he organized a concert to raise money for Hurricane Harvey relief efforts. Glasper got Lupe Fiasco, Herbie Hancock, Kamasi Washington and others to perform. This week he’s home as his progressive Robert Glasper Experiment headlines a show as part of the Da Camera jazz series, another sign that he’s left behind the club gigs of years past. He’ll also do a special listening party Thursday at the historical El Dorado Ballroom, where Glasper will meet 200 fans while a DJ plays some selections from his albums as well as forthcoming projects.
He has a single coming this year and an album next from August Green, a group he formed with rapper Common and drummer/producer Karriem Riggins.
And he’s started to think ahead to “Black Radio 3,” which he’ll begin to record next year. He’s excited by new vocal talent he’s been hearing.
“I grew up with an amazing singer in the household, so I’m an (expletive) about it,” he says. “But I’m hearing good, fresh voices. So we’ll see where it goes. I like to test the air a little, see what vibes fit well with what’s happening right now,” Glasper says. “Sometimes you feel like going with the grain, sometimes against it.”