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ARTICLE: Robert Glasper, not just the man behind the keys

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It’s practically almost easier to mention who Robert Glasper has not worked with. Coming from a jazz background, there is off course all of those that would ring a bell in those circles, but what might come as a surprise to the average listener is that Glasper also has collaborated with a broad segment of contemporary urban and pop artists, ranging from The Roots to Solange and Q-tip.

Never to self-important to degrade either dimension, the pianist instead forged the two into one of last year’s most remarkable records, the critically acclaimed Black Radio, and is now ready with its follow-up, logically named Black Radio 2, that might tap into an even broader audience, potentially giving Glasper the recognition he rightfully deserves.

The right album at the right time

Fed up with the lack of new thinking within the jazz community, pianist Robert Glasper and his Experiment set out with the relatively humble ambition to stir things up a little. The outcome – ‘Black Radio’ – went far beyond that, literally inscribing itself into American music history by taking home a Grammy for Best R&B Album in 2012. The conditions of the time were however also favourable as renowned trumpeter Nicholas Payton had sparkled his campaign to re-naturalise jazz music among other genres under the umbrella-term Black American Music (usually abbreviated as BAM).

Glasper nevertheless dissociated himself from this conception, diplomatically rejecting it; “I just don’t think to call it Black American Music is the way to go, because there’s a whole lot of black American music under that umbrella, and they all have names.” More so, Glasper in his own right, involuntarily came to forefront a new movement among jazz musicians, and Black Radio also marked itself as the principal work among a wave of similar projects from contemporary, coming-of-age jazz acts such as ERIMAJ, Gizmo, Lakecia Benjamin and NEXT Collective, all of whom were rounded by the popularity of urban music during the 1980’s and 1990’s.

Creativity emancipated

With most of its tracks being either covers or do-overs, much more than the lyrical content, the true innovation of Black Radio was the musical mastership of The Experiment. From Glasper’s floating finger technique and Derrick Hodge’s empathized bass play, to the adaptively march-infused drums of Chris Dave, all rounded of by jack-of-all-trade Casey Benjamin’s signature vocoder and whatnots.

That’s not to talk about what the prime roster of artists from the urban intelligentsia brings to the table; Stokley Williams breezily everting his soul on ‘Why Do We Try’, an unusually underplayed version of Bilal on David Bowie’s ‘Letter To Hermione’ and Erykah Badu’s stylish take on jazz standard ‘Afro Blue’.

The fact that the majority of the album was recorded through intense jam session over the course of 4 days, is only to be heard in how the decades of accumulated experience assembled in the studio lets their informed impulses lead the way, yet never goes astray down otherwise seductive pitfalls of irrelevance; every solo is appropriate, every improvisation on point.

A co-creational effort

Whether it was the Grammy nomination that encouraged the Experiment to further go down the R&B-path is uncertain, yet that is however what they did on their follow up, Black Radio 2, being released this week. To compensate, almost all of the material on the new record is original content, co-creatively conjured through the Experiment’s tight arrangements as the musical backdrop, setting the perfect scene for each of the featured artists’ unfolding.

A co-creational project in all regards, several of those (that include Common, Emeli Sandé and Jill Scott, among others) are participating by request from their fans, thus showcasing the mastermind of Robert Glasper not only as a composer and producer but also as a marketeer – but most of all an artist, way ahead of his time.

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