Experimentation for Meditation – Robert Glasper’s Experiment

By: Mark A. Moore Senior Executive, Smooth Jazz Entertainment LLC.

On March 10th 2012 The Robert Glasper Experiment featuring Bilal rolled into Chicago, playing a live show at the Double Door. (Unfortunately, I did not get to attend, but I heard it was a memorable performance.) About 2 weeks prior to that, they were the featured musical guest on The David Letterman Show and days later on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.  Clearly, this album has generated a lot of buzz, especially since he was featured in the April edition of Downbeat Magazine.  Robert Glasper is considered to represent a younger, fresher interpretation of jazz.  He isn’t afraid to mix incongruous elements, while pushing his music in different directions.  His latest project The Robert Glasper Experiment – Black Radio   attempts to do that unapologetically without apprehension.  However, after ingesting this diverse musical concoction, I realized I wasn’t sure of what I had just heard.  An ominous question quickly bubbled to the surface:

Is this jazz?

Black Radio is definitely in line with other works that have attempted to bridge both hip-hop and jazz.  For example, legendary rapper Guru (of Gangstarr fame) has successfully blended the intricacies of both genres successfully.  Jazzmatazz volume II is undeniably a definitive hip-hop album.  At the time, it was considered to be “different” offering listener a broader scope into both jazz and hip-hop. Conversely, I would argue that Black Radiois similar, yet disparate in its own devices.  It ranges further into today’s definition of R&B, with smatterings of hip-hop interspersed throughout.  As with most jazz artists, Glasper has covered at least one standard.  In this case, he’s selected Mongo Santamaría’s Afro Blue featuring Erykah Badu.  It is a smooth track that captures the song’s poetic lyricism, without pushing limits.  Badu’s pitched nuances add a streak of color to very straight-laced track.  This rendition doesn’t challenge the listener, but you will find yourself enjoying its catchy beat and melodic piano chords.

Perhaps the most eclectic song on the album is his interpretation of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit.  At first, you barely recognize it, especially since its famous guitar riff has been removed.  Its simple, rhythmic tempo and quiet subtlety is combined with “psychedelic” vocals that would make Teddy Riley proud.  Considering the grit and sheer weight of the original, this version will leave you feeling a little perplexed, yet appreciative of its trippy distinctiveness.   Lalah Hathaway’s pure vocals accentuate the softness of its conclusion, while adding another layer to the experience.  You will appreciate her richness and vocal clarity even more on Cherish The Day; a solid rendition of Sade’s hit song from the album Love Deluxe.  Several tracks include moderate interludes at their end, which act as transitional elements.

Robert Glasper has summoned a talented list of artists such as Erykah Badu, Bilal, Lupe Fiasco, Musiq Soulchild, Ledisi, King, Stokley, Shafiq Husayn, Lalah Hathaway, Chrisette Michele, Yasiin Bey and Meshell Ndegeocello to round out 12 firm tracks.   Subsequently, Glasper is doing his part to challenge the status quo.  For example, during Gonna Be Alright featuring Ledisi, the last 1:30 seconds is a candid conversation about the state of the music industry today.  There is a very clear message that he is challenging us all to ponder.

The Robert Glasper Experiment – Black Radio, is definitely a sensible album, which makes for a good listening experience.  The tracks are well structured, but they don’t push limits.   They are not bland by any stretch, but at times I felt they would do more. I would hope that his next “experiment” will further magnify his creative sensibilities.  Perhaps he is trying to capture a wide audience of listeners by making universally appealing material that will satisfy the average listener across several genres.  The album continues to njoy robust sales.  The formula is working effectively.    Now getting back to my original question:

Is it jazz?

The short answer is no.  It strays too far from it.  Just as the title suggests, it is experimental.  However, without a doubt, it is very, very good music.