The Okayplayer Interview: Robert Glasper On Miles Davis, Everything's Beautiful + Radical Jazz
The Okayplayer Interview: Robert Glasper On Miles Davis, Everything's Beautiful + Radical Jazz

The Okayplayer Interview: Robert Glasper On Miles Davis + Radical Jazz

The Okayplayer Interview: Robert Glasper On Miles Davis, Everything's Beautiful + Radical Jazz

In a world where jazz and hip-hop now lay perfectly intertwined, each feeding the other, Robert Glasper sits squarely at the crossroads. His accolades and his repertoire are virtually unmatched, embodying the sentiments of these converging worlds respectively, working side-by-side with everyone from J Dilla to Herbie Hancock to Kendrick Lamar to infinite and beyond. But the sheer array of collaborators and subsequent projects begs all sorts of questions, all revolving around what constitutes a jazz musician in 2016, with electronics and drum programs equally represented in both schools of distinctly American music.

Later this week, he'll release a project that salutes both of these musical lives, recalibrating the work of Miles Davis to the timbre of boom bap, bringing his compositions in line with more recent developments in low end theory. Bringing these worlds ever closer and defying the conventions of tradition is, as Glasper proclaimed in our chat, precisely what a student of jazz, regardless of era, supposed to do. Tradition is an odd thing when it comes to the Birds, Davises and Coltranes of our time. Already grappling with the implicit double standard of doing-as-the-greats-did and forging their own path in the same breath or flick of the wrist, Glasper speaks of tradition as an unnecessary evil, stressed only by inadequate players that fell back-asswards into academia, crippling generations of musicians by consistently burying the living to praise the dead; an antiquated sentiment that Miles, the very source of Everything's Beautiful, would doubtless have gagged at. 

For the tributary album, Glasper gathered only those musical minds in his rolodex that understood the Miles Complex, the obsession and dedication with/to moving forward, with almost paranoid haste. As if stagnancy were death itself. But if there's any jazz tradition worth upholding, it's this very compulsion to gracefully (or even not so gracefully) forge ahead into unpracticed sonic space. Each and every member of the Everything's Beautiful roster--comprising Stevie Wonder, Erykah Badu, KING, 9th Wonder, Hiatus Kaiyote, among a slew of others--is as haunted by The Complex as Glasper himself, whose studio demeanor mirrors that of Davis; loose and trusting of his team, full of hand-picked masters at their respective instruments. The success of this strategy is readily apparent, creating an album that's equal measures salute and reconstruction, invoking the spirit of Davis by chopping his rarely heard vocals--coughs, throat-clearings, whistles and mumbles--as if the giant himself were overseeing the sessions.

Though he's clearly frustrated with the institutionalization of jazz, Glasper sees hope in the current generation of musicians, crediting Kendrick Lamar and the whole To Pimp A Butterfly team for providing him and the entangled cultures of jazz and hip-hop with a beacon. For saying, Fuck both of those worlds and the one we live in for poisoning our water, air, dirt and creativity. For reaching deep into a ravished cultural fabric and grabbing something pure, in spite of it all.

Even with these recent triumphs, it's clear there's still work to be done, but rest assured the job is in the right hands. Hands that tap ivory keys and rubber pads with equal poise. Hands that remember the good mistakes. Robert Glasper's Everything's Beautiful arrives this Friday and can be pre-ordered via iTunes today. Read through the mind of a musical revolutionary below.

The Okayplayer Interview: Robert Glasper On Miles Davis, Everything's Beautiful + Radical Jazz

OKP: To start, how did you get involved initially with the biopic treatment (Don Cheadle's Miles Ahead)? What came first?

Robert Glasper: The score came first. I was in the middle of doing the score when they approached me about doing the Everything's Beautiful project. When they first thought of doing it, it wasn't called Everything's Beautiful. It was called the Miles remix album or whatever you want to call it. The movie came first. Actually, Don Cheadle tweeted me and told me that he loved my record In My Element.

OKP: Wow.

RG: I was like, "I hope not." I hit him back like, "Yo, you know you're Don Cheadle? Right?" Then we started going back and forth. We ended up texting and talking for a little bit. Then we had a mutual friend in Little Vince, who is Miles's nephew. Don told Vince that he wanted me to do the score to the movie. Vince was down with it. Then Don said he went to Herbie and told Herbie that he wanted me to score the movie. He said, "Wow. That's great. I want Robert to help me out too." That was what he said. He said that's all the confirmation he needed. Which is awesome, because now I am co-producing Herbie's album.

OKP: Dream-come-true type shit.

RG: Me and Terrace Martin. That's what happened with that. In the middle of me scoring that, that's when they asked me to do the Everything's Beautiful project.

OKP: Interesting. I guess as far as Everything's Beautiful is concerned how did you even start? How did you make the selections? Dude's got such a massive catalog. I wondered what it was that you were pulling from? Which eras of Miles's career you were mostly drawn towards?

RG: I was mostly drawn towards the funky era. The seventies.

OKP: We're talking On the Corner and like ...

RG:Jack Johnson. When they asked me to do the record, one of the things that we talked about was getting special guests on the album. In my mind that's what they wanted. When it comes to making an album with a bunch of motherfuckers on it, I'm the guy to do it. Apparently that's my thing.

OKP: That's not a bad title to have.

RG: I have the Rolodex to do it and the respect of the artists. They know if I do something I'm going to do it to the best of my abilities and do it to a level that's high. You know what I mean? My thing was, I wasn't ready to make a Black Radio 3 yet. But I was like, "Hey, this could be of a Black Radio-esque vibe." I was like, "Ooh, I'll do that, but there will be differences in it. I'm not going to use a live band." It's supposed to be all electronic. If there's a live band it's going to be Miles's actual live band. We were going to sample them.

OKP: Go straight to the source.

RG: Yeah, which is why I asked them if I could go into the vault and get multi-tracks. So I could take a funky drumbeat that's already pretty much there, loop it, and then take the piano from another album, and bass from another album, because that's going to give them a new song. You know what I mean? That was my whole purpose with that. I'm going to do it, but I'm going to do it in a way using his band most of the time. I played on like 3 songs. I didn't want to play on the album.

OKP: You were the hand guiding this thing?

RG: Exactly. Exactly. I didn't want to be playing on every song and doing all of that stuff. I wanted to try and use as much original Miles's music as possible, but shake it up and do it a different way.

OKP: This is the first time, from what I understand, anything like this has been attempted with Miles's music.

RG: Exactly. There's been a million Miles Davis remix albums.

OKP: What was that like? Stepping back and taking on a curatorial role as opposed to actually playing on a record?

RG: It was great. It's producing an album. I love to produce, so it's really moving from the head space of a piano player and going more into the head space of a producer. I always like to do both. For my albums I produce my albums, but I also have to be the player on the album. It's different when you're not playing, when you're just producing. It's a different feeling, so I love having that role.

OKP: Let me ask you this, was there any difficulty or adversity in your attempts to interpret Miles's horns and his arrangements through the lens of a key player?

RG: No, because the thing was, for me, I wanted to more so explore not just Miles's horns, not just the trumpet. Most people overdo the trumpet when they do Miles's remix albums. It's a plethora of trumpet. Miles is bigger than the trumpet.

OKP: Way bigger.

RG: When I think of Miles, I don't even think of the trumpet. Honestly. He was such a brand. A big ass hit-maker, an innovator. When you think of Michael Jackson you don't think of a singer.

OKP: No, you think of a presence.

RG: Yeah, like Micheal Jackson. Micheal Jackson bitches! The same thing with Prince. You don't think of singing. With Miles as big as his trumpet, with this record I wasn't trying to shove trumpet down people's throats on every song. I wanted to incorporate as much of Miles himself in the song as possible. Some songs you hear trumpet, but there are other times you hear Miles whistling. Sometimes you hear Miles's hand claps. Sometimes you hear his voice talking.

OKP: You sampled a couple of loose vocal takes on a couple of those. That was such a treat. It's really not something that you get to hear very often.

RG: Exactly. My whole thing is everybody knows what Miles's voice sounds like, but you never really hear him talk, what that sounds like. I have access to all this cool shit. Let me let the people into the studio and hear how he talks to the musicians, hear the metaphors he uses to get certain points across of what he wants musically, and hear him have fun. People think he's such a serious guy all the time. There's a stigma on him with certain things.

OKP: He was mad loose.

RG: Super loose.

The Okayplayer Interview: Robert Glasper On Miles Davis, Everything's Beautiful + Radical Jazz

OKP: As a bandleader he was super loose. He would just give cues. Let the band do what they do, which is a very unique perspective on what it means to be a bandleader. Especially when you consider the borderline dictatorial approach of your James Browns, and your Princes.

RG: The difference is Miles, when he took to the band, unlike Prince, James Brown, and all of them, Miles actually had bonafide geniuses on those instruments.

OKP: Truth.

RG: Geniuses, innovators, and he knew it. He knew not to overly try to tell them what to do, because he knew they were special. He gave them some sort of direction, and then let them do what they do, because they're that special.

OKP: You got to trust your talent man.

RG: You know what I mean? Every band leader can't say on every instrument that we have a genius. I can say that shit. Miles's band is fucking awesome. Everybody can't say, a bonafide innovator. Really when you hear them, you hear them leading a generation. Everybody in the generation is trying to sound like that guy.

OKP:  Did you find yourself trying to embody that? Were you giving people more structure or guidelines about how to approach it? Or did you just let them do their thing?

RG: I was totally trying to embody the Miles Davis way of doing it, which is how I like to do things anyways. I think I learned that from Miles a long time ago. I've never been prone to try and dictate every single detail, especially when I know I have some artists in that chair that has a spectacular musical mind. I gave very light direction. Let pretty much everybody do what they do. Especially when it was a band on their own kind of vibe. Hiatus Kaiyote, they have their own thing. I love what they do. Kings of their own thing. I love what they do, so I even let them pick the song they wanted to do. Let them do it how they wanted to do it. We talked a little bit. I gave different people samples from different songs. Let them incorporate them into the mix how they wanted to. I tried to be as loose as possible. On some songs I had more say because I actually produce over half of it but for the most part, I let the artist be the artist.

OKP: That's beautiful. Were you ever surprised by the selections that some of the artists made or what songs they were going to do?

RG: No, I loved it. These artists are actually true Miles Davis fans. I knew it wouldn't be surface shit. I knew it wasn't going to be like, "Really? So what? Really?" I wasn't surprised when Erykah was like, Ooh, I love 'Maiysha.' Let's do that, or Haitus Kaiyote was like, Ooh, I wanted to do 'Little Church', and then KING. It didn't surprise me one bit.

OKP: Everybody was as well versed in Miles's catalog?

RG: That's why I chose the artists I chose. I wanted it to be a true labor of love. I didn't want to get random artists that really didn't know anything about Miles to be on this album, because of their name. If I did that I could have got bigger names if I wanted them, but that wasn't the purpose of this. It's a jazz label. There was no money. I had to get people who really loved Miles, because it was literally a labor of love. We'll put it like that. Who says no to Miles?

OKP: What was it like working closely with Erin and Vince, the heirs? What was the extent of their input? How closely were they working with you on this record?

RG: Man, they probably took a page out of Miles' book too. They're so cool. The great thing about them is they could have easily gotten anybody they wanted. They grew up with Miles. They know a lot of people. They know a lot of important A-list artists, and they totally trusted me and my vision on this. They would give a little bit of input here and there. Little thoughts like, "Hey, possibly this person maybe? What do you think about this?" They were okay with them. They were okay with me being like, "No. I want to do this." They were really respectful of that. I take my hat off to them, because it could have easily been the opposite.

OKP: Why is Miles is still relevant today and for these generations of musicians and music lovers?

RG: Miles is a total poster child of what jazz is supposed to be, because a lot of jazz purists feel like jazz sounds a certain way. This is jazz. Now that's not jazz. This is jazz. Then when you ask jazz purists another question, "Who's your favorite jazz musician," they will probably say Miles Davis.

OKP: Even though he got the same shit for going electric.

RG: Exactly. It's funny. It's a funny thing, because Miles made it okay to say, "Fuck you," but still be honest and still honored the music. Some people say, "Fuck you," to jazz, but they couldn't play jazz from the very beginning. You were never really good. That's why you're so-called pushing the envelope, because you really couldn't play this shit to begin with.

OKP: Not the way it sounds.

RG: Yeah, that's why you skip over the part of learning the language. You're like, "Fuck the language. I'm changing it." You can't change it if you didn't know it. That's the problem with a lot of cats now. They want to skip over the part of actually learning harmony, practice, and writing music. All that part. Miles had that down. He could play the music of every era and play it very well. Better than most. Bop, hard bop, name it, he was into it. Then he said, "I want to push the envelope. The music has to keep changing." That's why we have those different eras, because somebody in that era said, "Fuck this. I want to do something else." That's why the eras have different names. That's why you move from the bop, to the bebop, to the post bop, and to the hard bop, and to the cool. You have to put a name for all these different names, because people kept changing shit. The free jazz, the fusion. You need to have different names for it. Miles kept changing it. He said, "If it ain't moving, it's dead." It's so funny. It seems like every genre understood what Miles was saying except the fucking jazz genre. Except the very people he was talking to.

The Okayplayer Interview: Robert Glasper On Miles Davis, Everything's Beautiful + Radical Jazz

OKP: Do you think that's a matter of there being a level of snobbery or pretentiousness in the jazz world?

RG: Jazz is the only music, other than classical music, that's really being taught in schools worldwide. Being that it's taught in schools you got to look at who's teaching. If you got a bunch of close-minded snobs who were really never on nobody's records in the first place, they are teaching the wrong shit in the wrong state of mind. Therefore the people coming up under them are learning how not to be innovative. That's an issue. All the other music you learn from the street. You learn rap music and R&B music from doing shows and doing gigs. The people who enjoy the music. People who are freer than the music. That's why R&B music is relevant now. There's such thing as a 2016 R&B song.

OKP: For sure.

RG: Now most people might not like it. Same thing with the 2016 hip-hop. Some of the shit you may not like. You may not like trap music, but guess what? Our parents didn't like hip-hop when it first came out. Their parents didn't like rock-and-roll when it first came out. The whole thing was growing. That's why the shit is called growing pains, because some of that shit hurt my goddamn ear, but the real shit is it's moving. It's growing. That's what you want.

OKP: Miles was always looking for that next thing.

RG: Totally. He didn't care. Herbie told me, "Miles didn't care what you did as long as it wasn't the same shit." He said there's a box set called the Plugged Nickel. He said that on the way to the club Tony Williams told him, "Hey, every song Miles counts off, if he counts it off slow, let's play it fast. If he counts it out fast, let's play it slow." They were fucking with the time big time. Herbie said Miles never turned around, never looked at them crazy, nothing. He just went with what they did. That's why Herbie said Miles didn't care what you did. If it was crazy or not. As long as it was something different and you were using your imagination.

OKP: Do you think modern jazz has lived up to that progressive nature? That pull towards something new and exciting?

RG: Nope. As a whole the genre has not. You can genuinely say as a whole R&B has moved on from the '60s and the '70s. Correct?

OKP: Absolutely.

RG: You could say rock music has done the same. You could say country music has done the same. You could say you could list every genre in music damn near every popular genre of music, and it moves on in an obvious manner, but you can't say jazz as a whole has moved on in an obvious manner. If you listen to jazz radio you really don't see that. You don't hear it. Are there a few people within it that are moving on? Yes. There are a few people within the genre that said, "Fuck it. I'm doing something different," but as a whole, the mindset has not changed. It's the freest, imprisoned music we have. It's almost like they put an ankle bracelet on you, but they are like, "You can go wherever you want to go."

OKP: ...but not here.

RG: Yeah, you can go wherever you want to go, but everywhere you go, your fucking ankle starts beeping.

OKP: Do you consider yourself to be a jazz musician then?

RG: If we're talking about the true sense of the word, yes, but if we're talking about the perception of the word, no, because back in the day, you say you were a jazz musician that meant you were a black belt in music.

OKP: Right, degrees and all.

RG: That means you were probably playing on one of Miles Davis' records. Then the next day playing with Curtis Mayfield, and Aretha Franklin, and Marvin Gaye, because the jazz musicians back then were funky. Granted most the jazz musicians back then were black.

OKP: Yeah, you wouldn't see too many white folks up there.

RG: You wouldn't see white folks, which is why it's easy to say, "Oh, jazz musician? Cool. They're on this album? Cool," because most of them were black. The funk was there. The slow was there, but now it's very European and very mixed with so many different people, which is a good thing as well, but at the same time when you say now, today, if you said, "Hey, man. I got this R&B gig. The whole band is jazz musicians..." or: "I got a hip-hop gig. The whole band is jazz musicians," you are going to get a big-ass frown from people like, Huh?

OKP: Until they actually heard that shit.

RG: Uh-oh, it's going to be strange. Most of the time it will be with the exception of a few people who actually know how to play the music.

The Okayplayer Interview: Robert Glasper On Miles Davis, Everything's Beautiful + Radical Jazz

OKP: Then how do we liberate jazz, man?

RG: I think we have to get the powers that be of jazz to actually start promoting and endorsing our younger musicians. In a bigger way. They promote reissues of John Coltrane more than they do our younger musicians. We're a second thought. We're the after thought. The first thought is we got to keep the tradition, which is a stupid thing to say anyway. Anybody that says, "We must keep the jazz tradition," they don't know what they're fucking talking about, because that tradition of jazz is that it always fucking changes. That stuff transitions, so if I'm adding hip-hop to the jazz I am following the tradition of jazz by changing it. If you are staying the same you are not following the tradition, dumb-ass.

OKP: I'm glad we made this distinction. Feels like a lot of this gets lost in translation.

RG: It does get lost in translation, but when you really put it out in layman's terms some shit doesn't make sense. They don't know what the fuck they're talking about. And you can quote me on that.

OKP: What about this next generation of musicians? Is the game in safe hands?

RG: It's a big wave of great musicians who have an actual original thought. What's cool about it too is that people like Kendrick Lamar are also changing the music, which is a great help, because jazz needs that. There's never been another time where a hip-hop cat has been talked about so much in jazz articles.

OKP: I mean...look at that roster.

RG: That's never happened. Then on top of that, you're talking about the hip-hop album of the year. The biggest hip-hop artist of this time. I take my hat off to Kendrick for doing that. A lot of cats do love jazz and blah blah blah blah blah, but it takes courage to do what you want to do. People who have stardom, people that are big, big, big stars, some of them are cowards, because they feel like they have to do a certain thing to stay there. If they don't do that certain thing ... with the same people. You know, featuring Nicki Minaj, featuring Chris Brown. It's the same album over and over again. The same type of beats. Kendrick Lamar is the best hip-hop artist right now of our time because he said, "Fuck y'all. I'ma get Thundercat, Robert Glasper, Bilal and Lalah Hathaway."

OKP: Would you consider Kendrick a jazz musician in our time?

RG: Oh, totally. First of all...harmonically, he sings better than a lot of jazz vocalists out there now. Secondly, the language, how he speaks of the time period. Like I said before, the language of jazz changes from decade to decade. He's like a horn player and he's one of the leading sounds of our time in that. How he put this album together, the way To Pimp a Butterfly came about, because it happened on the fly. When I was with him in the studio, he pulled up "For Free." I listened to it. I played it and he pulled up another one. He would play what you need. He let me play in the movement and play what I heard, which is also of the Miles thread.

RG: Like we're talking about knowing you have a certain caliber of musician right there, so we're going to let them have their thought, because it could be bigger, and different, and better than the thought you had. That takes humility at the same time. That takes courage and all those things. There's a lot of links to a lot of this shit.

OKP: I guess we have to stop thinking about jazz so damn rigidly.

RG: That's what it is, man. Jazz should be the musical equivalent of Bruce Lee fighting. He said, "The way is that there is no way." The tradition is that there is no real tradition. That's the tradition. It all changes. It's never the same. 25 different styles of fighting and he put them all in one. Jazz gives you that arsenal.