Robert Glasper

We caught up with Robert Glasper on Frith Street after his gig at Ronnie Scott’s, London. Glasper recently released his first live album Covered on Blue Note Records and is in the midst of a tour promoting it with his trio

When asked why he chose to do his first live album, pianist Robert Glasper gives a single reason: he’s never done one.

“I was thinking of ways to not do the same shit,” he adds. “Every time I do an album I want it to be something different than the last one.”

You're supposed to play music that
your peers can identify with

Covered, out through Blue Note Records, features ‘covers’ of songs by the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Radiohead and Bilal – Glasper’s close friend.

The album also reunites Glasper with bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Damion Reid. A trio used for his first Blue Note album Canvas, released 10 years ago in 2005.

“I feel that I bring something different than your average jazz musician,” says Glasper. “When you come to my live show, you get an experience that you don't normally get at a jazz show – or an instrumental show in general. I wanted to capture some of that live magic on record.”

How did your mother get you into jazz?
There was a record she [Kim Yvette Glasper] used to play by Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald. There was this song 'What a Little Moonlight Can Do' that she loved. She played it in the house and would sing it all the time.

Then I learnt it. I played it and she would sing along – that became our thing. It was listening to Peterson in the house that really got me into jazz. I played gospel piano but I never heard a jazz cat sound like gospel – blues and gospel at the same time. It was something that I gravitated to.

From Oscar that's when the floodgates opened. Then I stared checking out Chic Corea, my second guy.

Was there a piano in the house?
Yeah we had an upright piano all the time. My whole childhood we had an upright piano and a keyboard too.

Was your dad a jazz musician?
No. My biological father, yes. He was a piano player. I've never met my biological father. My mum met him in church and he was a church organist.

Sometimes I'd learn the melody of certain
songs, and just play with one finger

Needless to say, some of that came through me but I only grew up with one parent being a musician.

You started with gospel then?
Definitely. I was 11-years-old. My mother was a piano player at a really small church called East Wind Baptist Church [Stafford, Texas]. They had an organ that was half broken. She played the piano and the organ would just sit there.

She'd let me come up and pick out forms with one finger. Sometimes I'd learn the melody of certain songs, and just play with one finger. Then, slowly but surely, I'd be playing two fingers and chords.

It was a talent that was already there that I never tapped into. Once I started it, I quickly got good.

You started playing at some more churches didn't you?
Yeah once I got a little older. That church was pretty small, at most it was like 30 people. Then I went to a church that had 10,000 members. I went from 30 to 10,000 – click. When I got to maybe 16, 17 – my last two years of high school – I was playing at this big church. And then I was playing at a Catholic church on Sundays.

The big church was Brentwood Baptist Church. That's also where a lot of my family went. My aunt Jennifer still goes there to this day.

Did you improvise when you were playing at church?
Actually yeah. I made that happen because I would have friends who I'd bring along from my school. My high school was a performing arts school [High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, Houston].

We would mix up jazz songs in the gospel songs – do all kinds of stuff. More so in the big church. At the small church the pastor was a little bit more stern.

Was there a jazz scene in Houston? I heard the education for jazz musicians is very good in Texas.
There was no scene whatsoever. Most people didn't even know I was brewing when I was in Houston. All I did was play in school. There was one jazz club but I couldn't go because I wasn't 18. You couldn't get in.

The problem with most education is
that the teachers don't play anymore

So other than that, where do you see a young piano player who's really good play? So I was playing in church on Sundays and everyday during the week I was playing in school.

A lot of people didn't even know I existed until I left and came back as Robert Glasper. They were like, wow I didn't even know you were in high school. I didn't even know you were here.

But a lot of people came out of my high school. I went there with Beyoncé. A lot of jazz musicians came from there – Jason Moran, Chris Dave, Eric Harland, Kendrick Scott. My best friend, a super R&B producer named Michael Cox, went there too.

We had a really good upbringing. The cool thing about the school that made it better than most, if not all of those arts magnet schools, is that our school allowed teachers that did not have a degree to teach.

If I had a jazz class, one week my teacher would say, hey we have a special guest and he's going to come in and teach. Every week for a month. And he'd just be like a piano player from Houston but be really good and teach us hip, cool stuff.

The problem with most education is that the teachers don't play anymore. They're not giving you anything current that you can use.

Was jazz the main interest when you were a teenager?
I loved R&B music; I couldn't go to sleep without it in third grade. Until high school I could not go to sleep without having my radio on the R&B station – Magic 102. I had to have it.

R&B might be my biggest influence actually. And then gospel music because I played in church, and then jazz. Other stuff started brewing later. I liked hip hop when I was in high school but it wasn't a huge love. I was in Houston so I didn't know much about it.

I find out about A Tribe Called Quest in high school. When I moved to New York for college, that's when my hip hop shit started coming together.

What music did you play with your school groups?
It was everything man. I've been mixing music for a minute. All the cats in my band in high school, we all grew up in church but were playing jazz. Between those two things, everything else was in the middle.

One of my best friends that I was in jazz class with in high school was Mark Kelley, bass player from the Roots. We've been doing that for years. I just kept going with it because that's all I knew.

So you never felt the limitation that you were just a jazz musician?
No it was never that. But I know when it's time to play a certain genre. Even though I mix everything, I know when it's time to play in one style. Every time I play jazz, it doesn't sound like I'm playing R&B.

Some people get it mixed up. They think, oh yeah, he's crossing all the genres. No, I am but not at the same time. There are people who don't know how to play each genre authentically within itself. That's what you’ve got to learn. And then you decide, hey in my set I want to go from this to that – that's where the mixing comes in.

When you moved to New York, what was progressing your musical development?
It was the beginning of the neo-soul movement. I moved to New York in 1997. Me and one of my best friends Bilal [Sayeed Oliver] met in college and were inseparable from that first day in school – also because there were only like eight black people.

I was giving Common piano lessons
at his house not knowing who he was

I met Bilal; he got a full scholarship for vocal but he didn't have a place to live. So he literally stayed in my dorm. My roommate had a girlfriend and was never in the dorm. It worked out perfectly.

So what happened was me and Bilal were in my room one night, as usual, and wrote a song. That song is called 'When Will You Call'. That song is what got Bilal his deal with Interscope Records. Bilal got a manager play 'When Will You Call' to Jimmy Iovine [co-founder of Interscope] and that got him a record deal in 1998.

That might be the time Musiq Soulchild came out with that 'Best Friend' song too. Bilal got his deal right when that neo-soul thing was happening. That was my best friend, I was playing with him.

So through him that's how I got to know people like Questlove and play with the Roots. And that's how I know Erykah [Badu] and Common. Everybody from the whole Soulquarians group.

It was nothing because at that point because I didn't really know who they were. I was giving Common piano lessons at his house not knowing who he was. I was just Bilal's boy.

How did that happen?
Common and Bilal became close. Bilal was putting out his record [1st Born Second] in 2001. But before it came out, Common heard him. We used to go to this jam session all the time in Philly at the Five Spot. That was where the neo-soul shit started happening.

We would go every week and Common saw him there and started liking Bilal. That's why Common asked Bilal to sing on Like Water for Chocolate. Bilal was like, all right cool. So I was going to the Like Water for Chocolate sessions at Electric Lady Studios [New York].

Why do you think your transition was so smooth?
It was the right time and place, during the blooming of the neo-soul movement. Also because me and Bilal were like Bonnie and Clyde. You didn't see one without the other.

A lot of people don't succeed because nobody
that you're crossing over to knows you

He's so talented. He had people calling him like wildfire. With me it was just, who's that guy next to Bilal? Then I would jump in and play on the jam session and they'd be like, oh shit he can really play the keys. People used to call us the 'dynamic duo'.

When did you start moving into your own thing?
I didn't stop playing with Bilal until 2007. While I was playing with him I was still in college and put together a piano trio with some cats.

I'd play every Thursday at this little bar in Brooklyn called the Up and Over Jazz Cafe [closed in 2004]. I kept doing that for like three years. I would play with just a bar tender and a waiter in the club – sometimes people would come but it wasn't popping. I would also go on the road when Bilal wasn't working. I'd go with Roy Hargrove, Christian McBride, Terrence Blanchard, Kenny Garrett and Russell Malone – all these jazz cats.

So I was doing that and on the road with Bilal at the same time. I wasn't at school very much. Then I got signed in 2005 but I was still playing with Bilal when I got signed – purposefully because I knew one day I'm going to make this record Black Radio [2012]. I didn't know the name of it but I knew I was going to make a record.

I wanted to form and evolve from me being in the eyes of hip hop and R&B motherfuckers. I didn't want to isolate myself. I said, ok cool I'm going to do both. I'm going to be a Blue Note recording artist, put out my own record, go on tour, but at the same time try to balance playing with Bilal.

Bilal would say, this is Robert Glasper a Blue Note recording artist. Same thing when I'd go on the road with Mos Def – and with Q-Tip and Maxwell.

It's about being in front of an audience that I'm trying to cross over to. That's what makes a crossover successful. A lot of people don't succeed because nobody that you're crossing over to knows you. Shit don't catch on because people don't know who you are.

In the midst of all this music these days, it's hard. You've got to be seen in the other scene.

During that time, when you were preparing for Black Radio, did you think that you were going to progress jazz and do something new?
No, not at all. It was just what I did. I'd never say, you know what, I'm going to do this because it's different. That's just what I did. I've always just done that.

I was the jazz guy who had a
neo-soul singer on his album

I remember hearing people say, hey that's that Glasper sound. I started hearing that quite a bit in like 2004 – before I got signed. Because I had one record out called Mood. That album came out in 2001 on a Spanish label [Fresh Sound].

Gilles Peterson heard it and was playing it on his radio show. I think of that as my demo that wasn't supposed to catch on. But it caught on like a mud because Gilles was playing it after he played like Jay-Z. You know how random he is.

He started bringing me to London to do stuff with his Worldwide thing. He would bring my trio and Jazmine Sullivan and we would do stuff together. He would put my trio with Dwele – I'd been doing stuff with Bilal so that was my shit.

Gilles helped really boost my career. Because of that, a lot of people started saying the Glasper sound. What helped also was that Bilal's on Mood. He sings two songs on there. He was popping so I was the jazz guy who had a neo-soul singer on his album.

I'm just putting that together now, that might never have happened before. As far as the neo-soul genre, I might be the first jazz musician to have a neo-soul artist on his album.

Do you think today's jazz musicians are keeping things fresh?
Oh yeah, there's stuff happening. I think once people got over that you can do jazz your own way, through how you feel and using your own influences, then that opened the door for that kind of stuff.

School’s a good thing but it's also a bad thing because they don't teach you to be yourself

I feel like, shit, I think Roy Hargrove was a big part of that movement. Roy was a jazz musician but he played with Common on Common's album. He played on D'Angelo's Voodoo album. Then he put out the RH Factor [music group]. I was on the first RH Factor tour when I was in college. I remember he had Meshell Ndegeocello, Q-Tip – all these people in that album.

I started doing it then I got a little bit more crossover success with Black Radio, we're talking 10 years later. I got an R&B Grammy – who does that? People see that and everybody gets inspired. The doors are opening. It's great. Somebody inspires one person and it keeps on going. Now people feel like they can have an identity.

Why do you think that took so long to happen?
Because they let the history hold them back. That's the problem. School’s a good thing but it's also a bad thing because they don't teach you to be yourself. They teach you the history. So you come out like a cookie cutter, you come out like the last guy. Everybody sounds the fucking same.

A lot of it is an identity problem.
Exactly. You're supposed to play music that your peers can identify with. That's what every genre has done since the history of music. Jazz, when it was first made, was appealing to the people of its own age.

When John Coltrane was playing at 30, other 30-year-olds came to check him out. He wasn't playing for 80-year-olds because jazz was new. The 80-year-olds didn't like it, they hated it. They were like, what the fuck is this?

The reality and the history of the music is that you're supposed to play to your age group because that keeps it current and alive. Now jazz is playing to people that are about to die or are gone already.

What about people my age? That's how you keep it alive. It makes sense.