When Robert Glasper plays, nothing stands still. Grand piano hammers shift in strange patterns across their strings and every head in the room begins to nod. A current runs through Glasper’s playing, a rippling blend of jazz and hip-hop that seems to grow in every moment, and to witness him in live performance is to see and hear a new musical form flourish in real time. Under his spell, contemplation comes second nature; it’s a rich and challenging sound that engenders creative thought.
Back in February, tucked away in the basement of the Village Vanguard, Glasper’s sound moved more than just trains of thought, and inspired visual artist Rachel Abrams to create entirely new work in the form of tableside sketches in her notebook. Along with bassist Vincente Archer and drummer Damion Reid, Glasper played in fits and starts as he soundchecked for what would become a blistering run of six packed shows. And all the while, Abrams drew, catching the band in medias res and sketching portraits made up of many tiny lines that reveal currents of movement. Between their practice solos, wisecracks and last-minute rundowns there was more than enough for Abrams to capture and thanks to her swift hand Glasper’s soundcheck was preserved like a body in motion caught in portraiture: honest in all its blurriness.
By now, Glasper’s accomplishments are widely known, but Abrams is still working just under the radar. Sketching jazz and r&b musicians as they play, rapt in moments of improvisation, has become her greatest passion, and the London-to-NYC transplant has captured dozens of artists. Her body of sketches has a name–Soundpapered–and her list of subjects reads like a who’s who of modern jazz. Bilal, Thundercat, Christian McBride, Gregory Porter, Taylor McFerrin, Pharaoh Sanders, Roy Hargrove, Kris Bowers, Kendrick Scott, india.arie, José James and many more have all been sketched by Abrams, who has a knack for finding a venue’s ideal sightline and then quickly tapping into the kinetic energy of a performance, rendering it all on the notebook’s page. “It’s like extreme life-drawing in that you have the length of a song or length of a set to capture the essence of a person. You’re with them during their performance,” Abrams told Okayplayer.
Drawing has always been a part of Abrams’s life–she recalls sketching in a corner of the family living room while her older sisters played together, and with the passing years came formal art schooling. In her off hours Abrams would snoop through her father’s record collection, where she found Oscar Peterson, Dave Brubeck and other jazz musicians. Her fascination with improvisation has never abated since. “Jazz is temporal, but I experience it spatially and visually,” Abrams says. “It’s something to do with the fact that there’s both incredible structure and constraint–and also incredible freedom and looseness around those rules. It comes into full color when you’re listening and you realize that a performance or recording of jazz is referencing and constantly recombining other music. I like the collage of it.”
“My sketching is a way of not being a passive audience member but really appreciating how physical and present these musicians are are when they’re in front of an audience. I watch every move and pay deep attention to them. I’ve run into people who I don’t know personally but have sketched while they play and I feel like we’ve spent time together.”
After moving to New York City, Abrams took up jazz vocal lessons as a way of both building up confidence and connecting with the songbook of her family’s record collection. It gave her a better grasp on her new surroundings. ” The history of the city–jazz is enmeshed in it and it’s one strong narrative of New York City. It drew me here as a visitor and then it became the kind of thing to go check out, and a lot of my tribe of people are connected to that world.” Abrams’s singing also taught her the difficulty of performance and she respects the musicians she sketches all the more for having had her own taste of what it is they do.
It took until 2014 for her two passions to dovetail. Abrams found herself in Durham, North Carolina at the Art of Cool festival watching Mark de Clive-Lowe and almost without thinking began to sketch. From that moment, Soundpapered was born and today Abrams has logged over 50 artists’ portraits. She’s in no way slowing down–Abrams has hopes of catching vocalist Emily King and saxophonist (and frequent Glasper collaborator) Casey Benjamin in her sketchbook, and is headed back to this year’s Art of Cool fest with a long list of potential subjects. “These sketchbooks are very personal things,” she said. “They’ve become a diary of my last year.”
And on February that night at the Village Vanguard, it was personal as well; both sketcher and pianist were in their respective elements, together. Glasper and his band sured up passages in new tunes–songs that they had just tracked weeks earlier at sessions for his upcoming Covered LP, and Abrams’s pen strokes flew across the page. Whether it was a crackling groove co-opted from the pianist’s dearly departed hero J Dilla or the feathery touch of a single note, the Soundpapered process captured it all. “What was really joyful about it was the chemistry between the three of them,” she notes. “They revealed the intense communication and preparation that goes into making a smooth set.” That soundcheck, along with Abrams’s Soundpapered process, was captured live on video, and it’s with great pleasure that Okayplayer presents the diary of that shared moment–one in which jazz leapt out from a grand piano and found its way onto the page.
Videographers: Scott Heins, Yvonne Jukes.
Editor: Yvonne Jukes
Producer: Cali Green