Thirty-three-year-old Robert Glasper has been putting out fairly straight-forward jazz records since the mid-'00s. Last month, however, Houston-bred, New York-based pianist released a R&B and hip-hop indebted album, Black Radio, under the moniker the Robert Glasper Experiment. This has some jazz fans feeling left out.
"I like Robert Glasper's new CD," tweeted critic Ted Gioia. "But it has about as much jazz content as the Utah Jazz."
Glasper's last release, 2009's Double-Booked, was split evenly between his acoustic jazz trio and the electrified, beat-heavy Experiment. So it shouldn't come as too much of a shock that Glasper has dedicated both metaphorical sides of his newest album to his experimental project. What seems to surprise (disappoint?) people is his bid for commercial success.
Black Radio is a jazz album -- in instrumentation, anyway -- with piano, bass and drums at its core. But it also prominently features Casey Benjamin's vocoder and a boatload of radio-friendly guest vocalists like Erykah Badu, Lupe Fiasco and Yasiin Bey, formerly Mos Def. We're guessing that's what makes it not jazz-friendly, right?
See also: Erykah Badu - The Wiltern - 12/8/11
Half of the tracks are originals while the other half consists of an eclectic mix of covers (Sade, Bowie, Nirvana) and a lone standard ("Afro Blue"). But probably the biggest missing jazz element is
any much in the way of instrumental solos. Instead the album is a slow-burning collection of modern R&B by a jazz musician, released by Blue Note, a jazz label. It prompted The New York Times to ask: "is it jazz?"
And frankly, the answer is no, not really. But the more important question is: Who cares?
Certainly not Glasper. "I've gotten bored with jazz to the point where I wouldn't mind something bad happening," he said in a recent DownBeat cover story. And that boredom doesn't just come from the music. It comes from the response to the music. Thus Glasper has taken his bid for stardom to people his own age and is touring in primarily non-jazz venues. If the addition of a second date to his stop in Los Angeles -- which begins tonight at the Exchange -- is any indication, he's connecting with that audience.
Jazz and commercial success are generally regarded as mutually exclusive. Nonetheless, expectations are high for bassist Esperanza Spalding's first post-Grammy album, Radio Music Society, which comes out this week as well. So does this mean jazz has become viable? Radio-friendly? Do two artists amount to a trend? Does this mean there won't be places to sit at jazz shows anymore?
See also: L.A. Jazz Clubs Need More Loud Drunks
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Sometime after World War II, certain sub-genres of jazz stopped giving a shit about the people on the dance floor, and sixty-something years later they still haven't been able to get them back. The lack of hip-hop's influence in modern jazz seems strangely deliberate. But considering that Glasper is Mos Def's musical director and most photos of him features a J. Dilla t-shirt, no one should be caught off guard by this "new" direction. Black Radio is an accurate summation of the current popular musical landscape, and for some reason that is surprising.
The music world is filled with evolution mostly because it's the only way the artists can stay sane. Playing straight-ahead jazz, no matter how good you are, will not get you a spot on Letterman. But what will be far more interesting than Glasper's current bid for wider recognition is what he will do once he has attained it.
Glasper plays tonight and tomorrow night at the Exchange