As usual, talking to pianist, composer, and band leader Robert Glasper is like being addressed by an ambassador. He’s alarmingly articulate, insightful and charismatic; there is no better spokesperson for the new jazz era. Often cited as a pioneer and one of the most publicly visible musicians merging jazz and hip-hop, Glasper is a champion of border crossing in music and conceiving new ways of looking at jazz as contemporary music. Glasper rapped with The Revivalist about the discipline of authenticity, jazz being the only genre that is “stuck in history,” and how he connected with Lupe Fiasco.
Can you talk about your high school, HSPVA, and why you think it is a breeding ground for so many great musicians?
I don’t know why, but for some reason there was just a lineage of a lot of great musicians coming through that school. I think it was the fact that our performing arts high school is the only high school in the country that allows people to come in and teach that aren’t certified teachers. So for my piano lab and for combo and stuff we would have cats that were around the city that were out playing, doing their thing, coming in as special guests just to teach. It’s really dope. A lot of real players don’t have degrees, especially teaching degrees, because they’re playing. I think that was one of the dope things about it. There were a lot of great musicians there at the same time that I could learn from, and we would push each other. So it was kind of competitive at the same time. When you have something to compete with, it makes you better.
How much time do you actually spend at the piano?
I spent a lot of time in high school and college with the piano. I would play probably like five or six hours a day in high school. Obviously in college I had classes and I started touring early on when I was in college. I started touring my second year in college. On the road I didn’t have as much time to practice as I should have, but I’d say I got in about two hours a day or something like that. After I graduated, practicing went downhill for me. I’m one of those people that when I feel it, I get up and do it. I’m not one of the people that practices for eleven hours and brags about it. I figure out what I need to work on and give a good 30-45 minutes to that thing only. That works for me. People practice for eleven hours and walk away knowing nothing new. They didn’t really practice, they just played for eleven hours. You have to really apply yourself when you practice. Figure out what you’re doing wrong and sound bad when you practice. You’re supposed to sound bad when you practice because that means you’re doing something you don’t know. So I spend a lot of time doing that, but nowadays once I started touring and got a record deal I stopped practicing because I’m playing and writing. I need to practice. I’m trying to get my stride back and try to figure it out.
How would you explain the non-verbal interactions that go on onstage between musicians?
It’s kind of like if you have a group of friends and they finish your sentences and you have a lot of inside jokes that other people don’t know. It’s kind of the same thing, especially when you’re playing with musicians you are used to playing with as a band, like The Experiment. We’ve been playing together for a while and we know each other inside out. It doesn’t mean I know what everybody is going to do. It’s like I can click with whatever they do or whenever they are about to do something, I can click to them very easily. Most of the stuff we do onstage is spontaneous. We make it up on the spot, but you probably wouldn’t know because sometimes it’s so seamless. It seems like we worked it out when in fact we all just listen. Listening is a big part of it. You don’t even have to know the musicians. If you’re a great listener and you’re listening to what other people are doing as opposed to just yourself, it’s easy to have those connections onstage, those seamless connections.
What do you listen to for inspiration when writing music?
Everything. I get inspiration from vocalists, from rappers, from other instruments, from actors, from magicians. I’ve gotten inspiration from David Blaine; I’ve gotten inspiration from many different people. It’s just how they make me feel. Like David Blaine is random, but just how he commands people’s attention. When he walks into a room and he talks to you, you’re mesmerized. When he leaves you, you’re in awe. He’s not like every other magician. You could do the same magic tricks, but he has you in awe when you leave. That is inspiring. He inspires me, you know. I want people to be in awe of me when I leave. I like to command a certain thing. That inspires me to write songs and do all kinds of things. It’s just how someone is. I could watch a movie and someone’s acting inspires me to feel a certain way. It’s all emotions.
When listening to other musicians, what will make you say, “I want to play with them.”
Spacing and being mature. Knowing when not to play. Especially when you’re playing jazz, a lot of jazz musicians like to overplay. They play too much, they play too fast. They don’t listen to anybody and they don’t leave space. I’m a fan of space; I love space. So I’m more of a fan of someone who knows when not to play and what not to play than what he does play. I’m just a fan of anybody who listens and really opens their ears. If I’m watching them play with someone else, I check out if they’re listening to the other person’s ideas or what are they doing with the idea. Are they taking it and doing something with it? Are they responding to it?
What in your opinion makes a truly good producer in the sense of musicality?
A good producer musically just has a overall concept, not just a person who can work an MPC and make a beat. I want the keys to do this, I want to create this kind of feeling, I want this kind of sound. They don’t even have to know what things are technically as long as they can express it. I want the bass to do this; I want this kind of vibe. Someone who can really just mold that whole idea and not just make the drums. To be able to have a whole idea and translate that through musicians or through your MP or however you’re doing it. Even electronically if you can feel that idea and make it work.
What’s the lowdown on the jazz hip-hop connection?
Music is music and it’s good to have people around who are into specifically what I’m doing and to work with hip-hop legends that honestly dig my shit. It’s really cool.
What about just the jazz scene? What happened?
It got extremely European, which changes the whole vibe and takes out a lot of the soul element that was in it. And Everybody’s kind of a clone nowadays. Nobody’s themselves; everybody sounds like somebody or is trying to sound like a certain time period. A lot of people are stuck in the 1960’s so they’re playing a certain way. Then you have your other cats who are still playing old Branford shit and all that. It’s one of these things where I wish people would incorporate the music of today more, which is what I’m doing because I love it. But only do it if it’s your true love, that’s all I’m asking. Be honest, because I hate when I hear people doing some Dilla shit or some hip-hop shit when you can tell they really don’t like it. Then it just sounds pretentious. If everybody could just be honest and be themselves, I think we’d have better music, when people stop trying to sound like each other.
When did you break away from mainstream jazz and start doing your own thing?
I started my own thing in 2002, and that comes with composition. You become yourself when you write compositions. If you keep playing standards all the time and just other people’s music, you don’t have an identity. So I made my own identity with my sound and my compositions. That’s how people kind of know me and my sound. Like people say, “I want that Glasper sound,” because there’s a certain sound to my compositions. So, I think when people start writing more and stop playing songs from the ‘50’s and the ‘60’s, you know, not completely stop, but try to play your own shit. We’ve got to make new standards. Play some of your peer’s music. Jazz is the only music that is literally stuck in history. It’s stuck in the past. When you think of jazz, you automatically think of the past. I don’t know any other music that’s like that. Automatically when you think of jazz, you think of 1940’s, ‘50’s, ‘60’s, literally. You don’t think of 1990, or the ‘80’s. You’re not even in the 2000’s, you know. I think it sucks. I think people need to get up, leave that shit and leave that secret society shit. That’s not even jazz. You don’t know the meaning of jazz if you don’t want to collaborate with other kinds of music and everything. Jazz is a mixture of everything, that’s why it’s changed so much. It’s a living and breathing thing. Every five-to-ten years it changed.
What should we keep from jazz and what should we ditch?
I think you should just do what is you. I honestly think you should learn the vocabulary, just learn some vocabulary and really just try to find new sounds. Start playing new songs; start playing songs that you like that are of this generation. After that, I think the rest of it will come. If you start too far back, it’s kind of hard to have your own identity. That’s my thing. Let’s keep this music around by staying modern and staying of this generation. We need young fans, because jazz music is going to die otherwise. The audience is going to die. That’s my whole thing, which is why I get cats like Lupe and Mos and people like that. Not because, “Oh they’re cool, let’s do a show with them.” You know, they like my shit too. I met a lot of these cats because they like me. They asked me to play. It wasn’t like I sought after everybody like, “Here play with me, I want to do hip-hop.” That’s what it is.
With all of the budget cuts in schools, where is the new generation of musicians coming from?
There’s the internet. If they have a strong enough passion they can find whatever they want. But of course it’s not in schools anymore, so that really, really sucks. I try to do clinics wherever I go. Each city I try to give a clinic somewhere, so if they don’t have it in school they can come see me at this clinic. I try to make my clinics open and not just for a specific school, so that if one school doesn’t have it, they can still come see me. It’s really hard taking the music out of schools. I probably wouldn’t be where I am if music wasn’t in my high school. I’d be playing somebody’s church in Houston. So, it really sucks.
Robert Glasper – Piano
Chris “Daddy” Dave – Drums
Derrick Hodge – Bass
Casey Benjamin – Alto Sax/ Vocoder
Words by Eric Sandler