As the leading member of a popular jazz renaissance that also includes Esperanza Spalding, Gregory Porter, Jose James, Ambrose Akinmusire and others, Glasper has been outspoken in his belief that this most treasured of American art forms can still be relevant in the 21st century.
The pianist and producer often “straddles the fence,” as he puts it, by working with hip-hop and R&B stars for his acclaimed Black Radio albums, the first of which netted him a 2013 Grammy for R&B Album of the Year and peaked at No. 15 on the Billboard album chart. He also has serious jazz chops, which he ably demonstrated on last year’s Covered, and a warm, melancholy piano tone that’s incredibly appealing.
Glasper discussed the new Everything’s Beautiful project, his longtime friend and soul innovator Bilal, and his thoughts on the future of jazz.**Can you tell me about *****Everything’s Beautiful?***
Basically, the project is a re-imagining of Miles Davis’ music. [Blue Note Records] asked me to do a remix album, and I wanted to do a little bit more than a remix album, and take some of his old recordings and make new recordings out of them, and use fresh new artists to get an audience of people who don’t normally listen to jazz to check this out.
How did you decide which elements of Miles Davis’s recordings to use? I noticed that some of the tracks just feature him talking, while others feature him playing his horn.
I didn’t just want to do his horn. That’s what most people do when they do a remix album: They base everything around his horn, and I felt like Miles is more than that. I tried to incorporate as many different aspects of Miles as possible. Literally, some tracks just have his handclaps, some tracks just have him whistling, some tracks have him talking, and some have him playing.
Once I got into the vaults, and I listened to his recordings, and hearing the outtakes, hearing him talk, hearing him whistle things, and hearing him do all these things, it immediately made me say, “I want to put all these elements in there.” These are elements that people don’t normally get to hear, they don’t get to hear the little stuff that goes on in the sessions.
What was the songwriting process like in terms of collaborating with the different musicians?It depends. For example, with the song “Silence Is the Way” with Laura Mvula, the sample was used from the *In a Silent Way *sessions. So that’s why I purposely said, let’s call this “Silence Is The Way,” and try to build her lyrical content around that. On the song “I’m Leaving You” with Ledisi and John Scofield, it was my idea to have [Miles] say, “Wait a minute, wait a minute.” When I heard that on the multi-tracks, he said it in that rhythm, too. I didn’t even have to chop that. When I heard that, I said, “Oh, that’s something. We can use that.” So I had [Ledisi] build a whole thing around that, and I told her the concept around that: “You’re a woman that’s going to leave him,” so then [Miles] is going to say, “Wait a minute, wait a minute,” because he doesn’t want you to leave.
On Erykah Badu’s “Maiysha (So Long),” it starts out with a bossa nova tempo, and then ends with an Afro-house beat. Did you come up with that arrangement?
That was my boy Rashad Smith who co-produced that with me — it was his idea to go into that. We wanted to it to be somewhat of a dance record as well, so people can play it in the lounges and stuff like that.
I noticed that some of the songs take on the sound of the artist you collaborate with. “Song for Selim” definitely sounds like a KING song.Exactly. With some people, I didn’t even touch it. I just let them do them. I maybe gave them a suggestion of what song (to use), or they chose the song. KING chose that song, so I tried to find the multi-tracks, and send them little soundbites or audio from that actual recording, and they could incorporate it if they wanted to. But I definitely wanted it to sound like them. I wanted it to be them.
I performed on half of the songs. I didn’t want to perform on everything. I wanted to try and use as many sounds from the original Miles recordings as possible. I think that’s the cool thing about the project — most of the songs are from old recordings, but we made them fresh and I didn’t want to mess with that. I think I take two solos on the album. I sparsely played some keys on maybe 3 or 4 other songs, filled some stuff in. Other than that, I tried to use as many samples as possible to make this happen.
I didn’t want it to be too reminiscent of my Black Radio albums, which is why I wanted other people to have a strong sound on the album. If I play on every track, it’s really going to have that Glasper sound to it. I didn’t necessarily want that.
There’s a socio-political element in Bilal’s “Ghetto Walkin” and Phonte’s “Violets.”
With “Ghetto Walks,” that was my idea to have it be something political because of the time period we’re in right now. With what’s going on with police brutality and killing people, and all these things that are happening, it was important for me to have something on here that reflected that. I told Bilal where I wanted to go with it, and then he took it and ran with it. With Phonte, I just let him do him. I didn’t know what he was going to write about.
“Ghetto Walks” was the very first song we wrote for the album.
What about the drum machine beat on Georgia Anne Muldrow’s “Milestones”?That’s Georgia all day. I actually went to college with Georgia. So when it was time for me to do this album, I knew I would call her. Pretty much everybody on the album, I already knew they were Miles Davis fans, which is why I wanted them. I wanted this to be a labor of love, and I wanted it to be full of people who really have an admiration for Miles and an understanding of him. Those are the people I reached out to,people that I know could transform something and could encompass Miles and what he’s about. Georgia, she’s amazing, she sent it back to me, and I just put a piano solo on it. Then[me and my friend Anu Sun](https://twitter.com/anuthegiant) added an interlude after that. That’s when you hear Miles say, “You’ve got to cool it a little bit. I mean, you’ve got to let it carry you.”
Talk about your relationship with Bilal. You’ve been working with him for the past 15 years, right?
Even longer than that. We met in college in ’97. Our first day at college, we became best friends. One of the songs we wrote in my dorm room was the song that he got his deal from. It’s called “When Will You Call.” His management played that for Jimmy Iovine I guess in, like, 1998 or 1999? He got his deal with Interscope. Then I was his musical director for all those years, up until 2007. We were opening up for Erykah Badu a lot, and Common. When I worked with Bilal on his album (1st Born Second), that’s when I met J Dilla. We flew out to Detroit, and worked with Dilla [on the song “Reminisce”]. And then I got cool with The Roots, and Questlove started calling me to do a lot of stuff with them. So Bilal was my intro to that world. At the same time, I’m in college, studying to play jazz, and touring with Roy Hargrove and Christian McBride. So that’s where my “fence straddling” started. And me and Bilal actually had an apartment in Jersey for three years. We’ve done a lot of music together throughout the years.
I sawyour tweet that you worked on Kanye West’s “Touch the Sky.”** But you’re not listed in the *****Late Registration ***album credits.
I recorded that in 2005. Just Blaze did the beat.He had some kind of podcast a few months ago, and he released my extended version of “Touch the Sky.” On the actual studio date, I played all this extra stuff, but he never used it. He just had me replay parts of the Curtis Mayfield sample [“Move On Up”] for clearance purposes. And it was 2005 — I wasn’t known then. That’s why he paid me to come in and replay parts and why you didn’t see my name on it.
Talk about your involvement in assembling**the score and soundtrack for the movie **Miles Ahead.I wrote everything that wasn’t a Miles Davis song and I had to get a band to play it. For instance, in the part of the movie when Miles is rehearsing in the house, we can’t use the actual recordings. We were recording to show that they were rehearsing, so I had to get a group to sound like Miles’ band. When he was playing at the Village Vanguard, and he was playing “Blue in Green,” and he had to go outside and smoke a cigarette, I had to play a bossa nova, but it was in the style of 1958, when he had the band with Cannonball [Adderley] and Trane [John Coltrane] and Wyn Kelly.
You also worked on**the score for **Barbershop: The Next Cut.
Stanley Clarke had me come in and work on that with him. That was awesome. I’m a featured artist, because I didn’t write the score. Stanley wrote the music, and I came in and did my thing with it.
In a recent interview, you said that there’s been a lack of media attention commensurate to the success you’ve had. Has that changed?If I was a singer, I would have got more. A lot of people overlook me because they don’t know what to do with me. And this world is run by singers and rappers. But the reality is, *Black Radio *debuted at No. 4 on the Hip-Hop/R&B chart. The thing about *Black Radio*, which no album has ever done, is that it debuted in the Top 10 in four different *Billboard *categories: No. 4 on the Hip-Hop/R&B chart, it debuted at No. 1 on the Jazz chart at the same time, No. 3 on the Contemporary Jazz chart, then No. 4 on the Urban AC chart. That’s all at the same time. There’s never been an album that’s debuted at No. 4 on the R&B chart with Rihanna, Tyga, and Justin Timberlake and at the same time, be No. 1 on the Jazz chart. So, like, there’s so many awesome things, but I didn’t get the looks from the magazines, or this and that.
Both Black Radio and 2 were nominated for R&B Album of the Year. I got the R&B Album of the Year nomination twice in a row, and I won it the first time [in 2013 for Black Radio]. Like I said, if I was a new singer on the scene, I would have had a lot more attention. We’re just striving to get that respect, because it’s different how we’re doing it and why we’re doing it.
One of the things I’ve noticed about jazz players in the new millennium is that they’re very aware and burdened by the history of the medium. Every interview I read with them refers to the form’s peak in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Do you feel that, too?
No, I feel like a sense of having to carry on what we’re doing now. When you read interviews with players in the ‘60s, they weren’t talking about the ‘20s. That’s the problem with jazz, now: There’s a lack of reflection of the actual time.
We have a real relevancy problem in jazz. Jazz has always been a reflection of its time period. The ‘60s were a reflection of the ‘60s. The ‘50s were a reflection of the ‘50s, and it sounded like it. You could put on any recording, and I can tell you what decade it was because of how it sounds, the songs they were playing, how they were playing the songs, and how it reflected that time. But it’s very rare to hear a 2016 jazz recording and you know it’s 2016.
It seems like that’s starting to change with the current Blue Note roster such as you, Jose James, and Ambrose Akinmusire.In the grand scheme of things we’re not even touching the surface when it comes to competing with other genres. We’re just now starting to try to be relevant. Other genres never had that problem. They were relevant from the beginning. We’re playing catch-up, and there’s only a handful of people who really make the difference. ** **
Youmentioned in a recent interview that your music threads the needle between jazz and smooth jazz. What qualities allow your music to fit in different contexts?
Sometimes it’s just a simple melody that the listener can sing. The problem with jazz today is that there’s no melodies anymore. Everything’s so complicated, and everything sounds like a math problem, you know what I mean? It’s very rare I can leave a jazz concert whistling the melodies from a tune I just heard. Sometimes it just comes down to that. I like to bring in the singer element as well. When was the last time you heard an actual jazz song, with an actual jazz singer, with lyrics from 2016? There are none! They’re all old! I’ve never heard a jazz song talk about texting! [laughs] And that’s the problem. When you look at it from that aspect, what other genre in music with singers has that problem? None! Maybe opera or some classical stuff. But that door’s already closed. That’s the real problem. It’s almost like most people aren’t even trying, and they’ve accepted that jazz is old and it’s dead, and now it’s something that we pay homage to.
But you’re obviously trying to swim against that current.
Totally. I’m not even trying. I’m just doing me.