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Robert Glasper Experiment: The Music of Now

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On Sunday, February 19, the Robert Glasper Experiment is hitting Winnipeg. Nine days later, they’ll release their much-anticipated album on Blue Note Records, Black Radio. This will mark the Experiment’s first full-length album, and it will feature many high profile guests, including Lalah Hathaway, Erykah Badu, Musiq Soulchild, and Stokley Williams of Mint Condition.

Glasper is an incredibly versatile musician. He is first and foremost a jazz pianist who is rooted in the tradition, as illustrated by his first three records (Mood, Canvas, and In My Element), but he is also well-known for having played with several hip hop and neo soul artists, as well as bringing them in to guest with his genre-blurring group, the Experiment.

Glasper’s 2009 record, Double Booked, explored the Trio format for the first half, and introduced the Experiment in the second half. This Experiment features Derrick Hodge on electric bass, Casey Benjamin on alto saxophone, keytar, and vocoder, and Chris “Daddy” Dave, arguably the most innovative and influential drummer on the planet. Together they make magic. All four musicians have carved out their own careers as jazz musicians while simultaneously working with artists like Maxwell, Janet Jackson, HEAVy, Carly Simon, and several others.

The Robert Glasper Experiment has been under-represented on recordings, but a simple YouTube search will turn up a plethora of great live footage, with videos featuring the Experiment alongside MCs Q-Tip, Yasin Bey (Mos Def), and Lupe Fiasco, as well as covers as diverse as John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which will be featured on Black Radio. What is most evident from the many videos is how much they’ve evolved as a group since Double Booked came out two and a half years ago. They have really taken it to another level.

Glasper got into the hip hop world through vocalist Bilal, one of his closest friends. When Glasper moved from Houston, TX to New York to study at the New School, the first person he met was Bilal, who had just moved from Philadelphia. (Both were on full scholarship.) Glasper played on Bilal’s first demo and became his musical director. When Bilal was signed to Interscope records in 2001, Glasper began developing a relationship with artists like Common, J Dilla, A Tribe Called Quest, and the list goes on.

Concurrent to these relationships, Glasper was also making a name for himself as a sideman to Christian McBride, Nicholas Payton, Terence Blanchard, and Kenny Garrett. He released his first album, Mood, on Fresh Sound Records in 2003, which led to his current relationship with Blue Note. (When Glasper was at the jazz festival in Winnipeg this June he shared a very amusing story about his first time playing with Garrett—he’s almost as captivating a speaker as he is a performer!)

As a result of the deep musicianship and varied backgrounds of the members of the Experiment, the music is really free to go anywhere, which makes Glasper’s music a reflection of what jazz is today. That’s not to say, by any means, that everyone should play the way that he plays; but rather everyone should play as honestly as he does. Here’s how he put it in an interview:

If you’re being yourself, I think your hipness and your awareness of today will be natural. It’s not about putting hip hop with jazz to make something so people will like it—that’s just where [jazz] is right now.

When you go from Charlie Parker to John Coltrane, John Coltrane didn’t say, “Hey, let me mix this with jazz (which is Charlie Parker in his mind) so people will come check this out.” It was just that in 1965, that’s where jazz was. I’m sure there were some people looking at Trane saying, “Wait a minute, what are you doing? That’s not jazz! Listen to Duke—that’s jazz!” Then where would we be? It took those kinds of trailblazers and innovators to say, “Well yes, that’s jazz, and so is this.”

That’s what jazz is for me: it’s now, it’s modern, it’s relevant. I can’t play the music that was very popular in 1960 and expect the people of now to be excited about it.

The Robert Glasper Trio packed the West End Cultural Centre when they performed here last June. Odds are the Robert Glasper Experiment will pack the house too—the Winnipeg audience is in for an unforgettable show.

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