We caught up with veteran pianist Robert Glasper; he talked about his eventful year, what he has planned for the future, and the infamous Lauryn Hill interview (spoiler alert: he has no regrets.)
Robert Glasper had an eventful 2018. In October, the veteran pianist completed a residency at the iconic Blue Note Jazz Club in New York City. The residency — which featured 48 shows in 24 nights — brought out the likes of Yasiin Bey, Anderson Paak, Omari Hardwick, Bilal, and more to jam with Glasper.
The residency put a bow on a year in which Glasper was a prominent presence in music. At the top of the year, Glasper joined forces with drummer Karriem Riggins and legendary rapper Common; together, the trio formed August Greene, and they released their excellent self-titled debut in March. A couple of months later, Glasper released another album: Collagically Speaking. The album was released by the supergroup R+R=NOW (a collective that consists of Terrace Martin, Christian Scott, Derrick Hodge, Taylor McFerrin, and more.)
Despite being the central figure in two of the better albums to drop this year, Glasper would make the most noise outside of music.
In August, Glasper gave an interview with The Madd Hatta Morning Show on 97.9 The Box in Houston, Texas. During the interview, he was asked about working with difficult talent. Glasper used the opportunity to bring up what it was like being in a band for Lauryn Hill. The comments were not kind.
The harshest criticism came when he alleged that she stole parts of her masterpiece The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill:
She took the credit for making the classic album. Those songs were written by other people and they did not get their credit. She likes to take credit so she can become this super person.
The story blew up. To the point where the mythical Lauryn felt the need to respond in a blog post. (Hill never truly denied any of the claims made by Gasper.)
We couldn’t finish the year without sitting down with Glasper. We caught up with this soulful “Southern buoy” as he winded down his Blue Note gig. We talked about his eventful year, what he has planned for the future, and the infamous Lauryn interview (spoiler alert: he has no regrets.)
Check out the interview below.
What made you agree to an intense month-long residency at the Blue Note?
They asked me… I was like that would be cool, because it’s kind of like me going on tour without planes, trains, and automobiles. And then I can be here at home to hang out with my son longer. That’s what attracted me to it. I could, like, work and be home at the same time.
It’s very interesting to watch you get into your musical zone. It’s like a spiritual experience almost – the music just kind of takes over you. How would you describe the experience of you performing and making music?
It’s very much a spiritual experience because I don’t feel like it’s work once I hit the stage, and I build it that way. I don’t like to think when I’m onstage. I don’t want to think. I want to lose myself. So I make sure I surround myself with the musicians that allow me to do that. A lot of times people have musicians where you have to talk during the song and show them this and tell them this… you know, you’re worried about too much shit and you just can’t get lost in it, and I don’t have that issue. I literally feel like I work with the best musicians in the world, and we all have such a musical rapport. We’re really, really connected musically to where I can lose myself, and I can feel free to lose myself, and I’m fine with it.
Why is it so important for you to foster a musical community and share your musical platform with artists such as Bilal, Yasiin Bey, Keyon Harrold, Omari Hardwick, and Anderson .Paak?
I think it’s for the culture. A lot of people are very much for themselves, and I don’t have anything to prove necessarily with my skills on the piano so I enjoy sharing musically. It’s what I love to do. I’m like a point guard in basketball – I love passing the ball to people who can handle it, and being on the team with them. It’s a different perspective. Most of my career, especially the beginning of it, I was playing piano trio. I was the nucleus. I was the driving force. It was all about me. Then after 2009, I was able to start recording with guests, and, for me, it’s different colors, different expressions. I get to do different things. If I’m not worried about the melody, and I’m not worried about being the main focus all the time. I get to add color to somebody else. That’s a whole other way of playing, a whole other way of thinking – and I love adding color. I genuinely love doing it.
Some people walk away and they’re like, “We didn’t get enough of your solo, we didn’t get enough of you,” and I’m like, “But I’m playing colors. I like colors.” Bilal is the same way. He loved doing that Miles [Davis] project because he was able to just be a part of the band and just add vocal textures, like an instrument. It wasn’t necessarily about him singing the melody to every song. He could be a different character, and it’s so fun to do. That’s a different level of musicianship. It’s fun to do, and then it’s fun to do it with different artists who are super dope. Now you’re introducing somebody to your platform, to your fan base, and it’s advertised, and those people’s fans are introduced to you. That’s how you expand as an artist. That’s the secret to expanding when you’re a piano player. Hell, I don’t sing, or rap. So for musicians to get full exposure the way I’ve been getting it, that’s one of the main ingredients. I like combining with artists who are singers, or who are rappers, and who have a different platform than me, so then their platform sees me, and my platform sees them, and we’re getting each other’s fan base and just expanding each other.
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How do you feel about the industry and the world classifying your music and putting you into a category or box? You’re more than just a jazz artist…
Yeah, we’re fighting. People like to brand you and sum you up, and put you in a category so it’s just easier. And there hasn’t been enough artists who’ve really broken through and done jazz and hip-hop or R&B the way that I do it for it to be a real big issue.
I’m definitely more than just jazz. I’m a jazz musician at my core. I go by the old definition. Back in the day, in the ‘60s, when you heard that somebody was a jazz musician, you were excited, because you knew they could play other things. A lot of those Motown albums you hear are all jazz musicians because that’s when the music was black. Jazz was super black, which means it was super soulful, which means it translated through other genres of music, so that’s why all the Motown albums used jazz musicians. So for me, being a jazz musician really means giving you the tools to play everything else. Because, even to be a bad jazz musician, you kind of gotta do better than everybody else. Because you have to master your instrument pretty much just to play the music correctly, just to play the melodies and to actually improvise even on a mediocre level, you’re pretty much better than most musicians in any other genre when it comes to just mastering your instrument.
So to me, when you’re a jazz musician that’s supposed to mean you have the tools to master any other genre of music. You gotta check it out and study it, of course, but at least you have the tools. That’s what it used to mean for me, but not necessarily now. When you hear the words jazz musician now the first thing you think is not soulful. Unfortunately, the first thing you think is not black.
Have you seen the Netflix documentary on Quincy Jones? Because he understood this concept you’re describing very well…
Yes. A lot of people have the audacity to tell me, “ You should come back home and play jazz,” and I’m like, you don’t know my life, because jazz is the third genre of music that I started playing. I started playing gospel first, then R&B. I was learning Luther Vandross songs with one finger on the keyboard. And my mom was an R&B singer, gospel singer and jazz singer. She sang all kinds of music. I started learning jazz tunes later, like that’s my third thing really, if you want to get down to where home is. So that’s why it’s easy for me and it’s natural for me to flow through these different genres, because I’ve lived through all of them. I’ve literally played with the best people in those genres, so I’ve done my schooling of the genres.
It’s not like I’m a fan of the genre. Because that’s what happens with a lot of jazz musicians. They’re fans, they became fans of J Dilla and they listen to a few J Dilla songs and they feel like they can play hip-hop now. I played with Dilla in his basement, like jammed with him – he’s on the MP and I’m on the keyboard, jamming for weeks. I used to play in The Roots all the time. And on and on and on, playing with all the best hip-hop artists and then the same thing with R&B. I was Maxwell’s keyboard player for six years. I played with Bilal for 10 years. I played with Aretha Franklin. You can go down the list of people I’ve played within each of the genres and you can see why it translates the way it does because I’m not playing at those genres. And in a real way, that’s why I tell people all of the time if you really want to cross over stop playing hip-hop with jazz bands. Stop playing R&B with jazz bands. Stop playing hip-hop with gospel bands. If you want to play real hip-hop, and get your hip-hop chops up, play with a hip-hop band. That’s what you need to do. Do that.
You mentioned Aretha Franklin. Any thoughts on her recent passing or memories you’d like to share?
My mom was a huge Aretha fan. There was Aretha music in my house all the time. She was one of the originals – when you think of singer-songwriter people skip over Aretha Franklin a lot of times. You kind of skip over a lot of black people in general when you say singer-songwriter – you kind of go straight to everybody else, but Aretha Franklin played great piano and could accompany herself greatly. And sang like that! And wrote! She was really a superwoman. There’s not too many people that you can point to that did that and affected the world the way she affected it, and just had a sound that literally no one else had, not even close. And then coming from the church, playing in church, which is where I come from, and then to cross over into the world of R&B, pop, funk…she was just unmatched.
What’s next for you in terms of projects?
My next big project is definitely going to be, for sure, Black Radio 3. I haven’t started it yet, but I’ve worked on it in my mind, and I’ve already talked to many different artists and I’ve gotten the yeses from most of them it not all of them.