Interview: Robert Glasper, pianist and jazz musician

ROBERT Glasper is taking a good-natured swing at those he calls “the jazz police”. The New York pianist, who flits with consummate ease between piano trio jazz, hip-hop, R&B, you name it, is talking about his widely acclaimed fourth album, Black Radio, which, while released on the iconic modern jazz label Blue Note, features such notable collaborators from the world of urban black music as Bilal, Erykah Badu and yasiin bey.

Rather than jazz with some token hip-hop beats tacked on, Black Radio is an elegantly seamless fusion of genres. Jazz purists and inveterate pigeonholers may have some difficulty with it, but the 34-year-old Glasper clearly revels in what he sees as the freedom of ranging through the various music styles with which he grew up. “I’m signed as a jazz artist to Blue Note, but that’s not the only music I like,” he says. “There are a lot of people who just do jazz and that’s it; you know, the jazz police – ‘You gotta do jazz till you die,’” he laughs:

“Like... why?”

Audiences at the Old Fruitmarket may ask themselves the same question on 28 June, when the Robert Glasper Experiment plays the Glasgow Jazz Festival, the pianist joined by his regular bandmates, drummer Mark Colenburg, electric bassist Derrick Hodge and Casey Benjamin on saxes and electronic vocoder.

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It may lack some of the unpredictable spark of more conventional modern jazz, but Black Radio is an intriguing and polished affair, featuring the likes of Grammy-winning Erykah Badu’s sensual crooning of the classic Afro Blue to a flickering hip-hop beat and echoing flutes, Bilal injecting some creamily mellow soul into David Bowie’s Letter to Hermione and a wonderfully unlikely rendition of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, with Benjamin’s vocoder wheedling weirdly over hypnotically ticking percussion.

But Glasper can still do piano trio, and beautifully. Listen to his earlier album In my Element, and his lyrical keyboard treatment of Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage, which slides neatly into Radiohead’s Everything in its Right Place. It’s not for nothing that the pianist’s Grammy-nominated 2009 album Double Booked played on the jokey supposition that he was juggling hip-hop and jazz gigs on the same night. The piano trio, he insists, remains his first love, “but I like other stuff and I don’t understand why I shouldn’t play it.” Glasper grew up in Texas, steeped in blues and gospel music, and from the age of 11 played in his local church, but he also absorbed soul, R&B and hip-hop along with his peers. “This is music I’ve grown up on and always loved, and the people I’ve been playing with for the past 15 years are people I’ve known for a very long time. I like to incorporate into my music everything that has to do with Robert Glasper’s life, not someone else’s life,” he continues. “I’ve been blessed to be in the midst of all these great artists from different genres and it makes me able to do what I do.

“And,” he adds conclusively, “it’s still fun.”

Glasper has been quoted in the past as saying that jazz badly needed re-energising, that it could do with “a big-ass slap”. In fact, he admits, pragmatically, “I just want to do other music that the majority of people listen to. I didn’t really want to pump up jazz, it was just to jump into the mainstream of soul, hip-hop and R&B, and if I do that, my jazz will get more attention.

“I’ve heard some people say that I’m selling out, but I’m not. If I hadn’t done Black Radio, and just kept on doing just piano trio stuff, I wouldn’t be honest with myself; I’d be doing it to please other people. That would be selling out.”

The Robert Glasper Experiment is just one facet of the multi-faceted entity we know as jazz, as a look at the Glasgow Jazz Festival programme demonstrates, featuring everything from afternoon tea dances at Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s House for an Art Lover to the raw, overtone-suffused melodies of the great Pharoah Sanders, the one-time confederate of John Coltrane still going strong at 71.

Along with Sanders, other bill-toppers include another jazz-hip-hop fusionist, saxophonist Soweto Kinch, as well as one of Britain’s currently most feted piano bands, the Neil Cowley Trio, rejoicing in its “jazz for “Radiohead fans” tag.

Shifting towards the rock and blues end of the spectrum we have the Grammy-award-winning electric blues of the Robert Cray Band, as well as Ginger Baker’s Jazz Confusion, featuring the Cream and Blind Faith veteran drummer alongside James Brown saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis and Ghanaian percussionist Abass Dodoo.

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Further genre-stretching includes the international trio Das Kapital playing the works of Brecht collaborator (and composer of the old GDR national anthem) Hanns Eisler, and eclectically-minded Scots classical guitarist Simon Thacker‘s richly textured Indo-fusion group Svara-Kanti.

Further homegrown talent includes an opening concert from the brazenly accomplished Brass Jaw, whose festival gig last year sold out, saxophonist Raymond MacDonald in tandem with Danish pianist Helle Lund, spirited Dixieland from the Nova Scotia Jazz band with pianist Brian Kellock, saxophonist Konrad Wisniewski joining forces with trumpeter Lorne Cowieson’s Melodia and Celtic jazz (and the soundtrack of Gregory’s Girl) from Colin Tully’s Sensorium. Other weel-kent Scottish jazz names include Niki King with her soul-funk outfit the Elements and bassist Mario Caribe with his Latin-inflected quartet, while Ryan Quigley’s Big Band will reprise its well-received Beatles tribute. Further heavyweights include the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra (lauded in last month’s Parliamentary Jazz Awards yet, astonishingly, threatened by Creative Scotland budgeting) in concert with the Tommy Smith Jazz Youth Orchestra. Also on the Glasgow bill is the inimitable jazz vocalist Ian Shaw – who, we can reveal, will also compere the Scottish Jazz Awards ceremony at the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, on 19 July. Now in their third year, the awards are run jointly by the Scottish Jazz Federation and Jazz International, and SJF’s director Cathie Rae explains that the judging format has changed slightly from last year, with winners now being decided by a substantial panel of experts drawn from the music industry. The public, however, will still be able to vote on the “Live Jazz” category, which can go to a band, a venue, a festival or whatever rewarding live jazz experience. For details, nominees, and the chance to vote, see

Rae promises a talent-packed red-carpet occasion at the Queen’s Hall, though whether Shaw will regale us with his famed Kate Bush impersonation remains to be seen.

• The Glasgow Jazz Festival runs from 27 June until 2 July. See