One cannot be certain as to what rock they have been hiding under, but it seems I somehow missed the music and work of jazz musician Robert Glasper. After a few years of session work (including playing on Bilal’s debut album) and releasing a CD independently, Blue Note Records were wise to sign him. Blue Note Records has had massive success with Norah Jones in recent years, and it might seem that the label would switch their emphasis to vocal-based artists, especially those who could sell more copies with one album than the label’s entire back catalog combined, but this is not the case. The label has not changed a thing, having that ear for quality jazz still exists, and if Glasper’s second album for Blue Note is an indication of what jazz has in store for the 21st century, then it is in good hands.
The music on In My Element is the type of journey jazz fans eagerly await to sign up for every few years. They want to hear the music, hear the musicianship, get caught up in the creation of sound, and praise whatever higher power exists for the existence of the people behind the music. Glasper’s style is not easy to pinpoint, but one can hear the virtuosity of Herbie Hancock and subtle touches of classical training (or at least a knowledge of how to play, and how to play right), and the openness of improvisation, not unlike Cecil Taylor. In a piece like “Of Dreams To Come,” he and his trio (bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Damion Reid) begin their musical trip by immediately creating a mood and setting that is fitting of the title. One can imagine dinner on the river during sunset, or being in the middle of an open field seeing nothing but green, or even a Sunday morning overlooking New York City. His playing is quite precise while the rhythm section assists him in the storytelling, and all of them seem very secure in what they’re playing and how. As the album goes on, one may hear a few Latin-influenced sounds, or Reid will break out into a funky beat until the others get locked into the groove, or the pace of the rhythms will sound like acoustic drum’n'bass. Ever imagined a collaboration between Herbie Hancock and Radiohead? Glasper does this by performing a medley of “Maiden Voyage” and “Everything In Its Right Place,” forming a non-existent bridge between the two and finding common ground.
Glasper honors the late Dilla with a piece called “J. Dillalude,” where someone encourages him to have some of James Yancey’s productions recreated in a trio setting. In other words, the reorganized samples of Dilla are reconstructed organically, thus the spirit of the music goes full circle like a fine record from a dusty crate. It sounds like one of Dilla’s beat tapes, moving through familiar tunes including the infamous “Swahililand” hook.
From that point on, the musiciality of the album is turned up way past 11. Glasper, Archer, and Reid let loose by going every direction possible, and where they go with the songs are unknown, and unpredictable. Glasper said in an interview that when he has a song ready to record or perform, he doesn’t want to play anything that’s set in stone, even songs that may be considered traditional. He doesn’t want to play the same way each time, if he feels the need to play around the melody, or to jam in 3/4, 5/4, and 11/4 while the rhythm section keeps to a consistent 4/4 beat, he will do so and somehow the magic happens when they all meet at the off-ramp, finding common ground, still going in the same direction. The tranisition from “Silly Rabbit” to “One For ‘Grew” brings this to the forefront, and then some. Glasper’s knack to go towards the avant-garde is evident, and yet in an instant can move right into a romantic ballad as if that’s how it was meant to be.
In My Element is a powerful musical statement, and an inspiring one, from a musician who shows a modern perspective of what has become American classical music. Young jazz musicians now have years of soul, funk, hip-hop, and of course rock’n'roll before them, and just as hip-hop was once the sponge that absorbed any and all sounds, Glasper has taken that sponge for himself to discover what he and his influences can do. Jazz may be his element, but that musical sponge suggests that through jazz, he seeks to find common ground, in life and music. Blue Note founders Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff would be honored to know that someone like Glasper has been found, someone who continues the legacy of the label, and in turn is provided a chance to write the script for his own legacy.