ROBERT GLASPER  -  WAKING UP JAZZ

Jazz pianist Robert Glasper couldn’t care less about conventional musical boundaries. With a career ranging from R&B sideman to music director for hip hop icon Mos Def to leader of his own jazz trio, Glasper commands a multitude of styles. But he’s found his greatest success with the Robert Glasper Experiment, a free-ranging exploration of the intersections between jazz, R&B, and hip hop.

On 2012’s GRAMMY-winning album Black Radio, Glasper enlisted an array of musical guests—including Erykah Badu, yasiin bey (formerly Mos Def), and Me’Shell Ndegéocello— to signal a soulful, edgy new take on jazz. And the broadcast continues with his recently released, chart-topping follow-up, Black Radio 2, which features such musical accomplices as Norah Jones, Jill Scott, Brandy, Snoop Dogg, and Macy Gray.

“I like jazz, but I also like a whole lot of other stuff,” Glasper says. “Since when do you have to only like one kind of music? I always knew that I loved mixing genres and making things jazzy, or making jazzy stuff have more of a hip hop or R&B edge. When you hear as much different music as I did growing up, it just becomes one thing.”
“MY WHOLE CAREER HAS BEEN ABOUT ACOUSTIC PIANO, AND THE MOTIF XF DEFINITELY GETS CLOSE TO THAT. IT HAS THE BEST PIANO SOUND OF ANY KEYBOARD, AND THE TOUCH FEELS NATURAL.”

Glasper’s mother was a jazz and R&B singer/pianist who often took him along to rehearsals and gigs. “I remember being in the back room of R&B clubs, with the waitresses checking on me, and she’d come in between songs,” he says. “She loved all kinds of music, everything from Aretha Franklin to Liza Minnelli, Shirley Caesar to Tina Turner. That’s where I get my randomness—I call it being a musical mutt!”

But Sunday mornings had a different soundtrack: “My mom was the music director at church,” Glasper recalls, “and I started playing there too when I was around 12 years old. It was the early ’90s, and R&B and hip hop were starting to be interjected into gospel music. So my first experience with mixing genres was really in church.”

After attending the High School for Performing and Visual Arts in his native Houston, Glasper headed to college at New York’s New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. When his best friend, singer-songwriter Bilal, signed with Interscope Records, Glasper became his music director.

“I’d go on tour with him, playing hip hop neo-soul stuff, and those audiences got to know me,” he says. “Then I also started playing with Mos Def, and Maxwell, and the Roots, and some R&B artists. But when I got off the road, I’d go play with my trio.”

robertGlasper deliberately chose to keep his musical worlds separate while he built a name for himself. “It was important to solidify myself and gain people’s respect as a jazz piano player,” he explains. “When I did jazz, I only did my stuff. And if I worked with anybody else, it was R&B or hip hop.”

As a result, his hip hop and R&B fan base grew alongside his burgeoning jazz career, which soon included a recording deal with Blue Note. “Having my feet planted in hip hop and R&B, and also in jazz, has allowed me to have them planted on the charts now as well,” Glasper remarks.

For live shows, Glasper uses a Motif XF as his primary piano sound. “My whole career has been about acoustic piano,” he says, “and the Motif XF definitely gets close to that. It has the best piano sound of any keyboard, and the touch feels natural. I’ve played so many keyboards—and when I came across the Motif, it was like, ‘Oh, yes.’ Because that piano sounds so good and so real.”

So real, in fact, that he used it on his latest record. “The song ‘Trust,’ featuring Marsha Ambrosius, is the most piano-driven song on the album. And because it sounds so good, I kept the Motif XF demo track on the album.”

Glasper’s stage rig also includes a Motif XF. “I use it for all the ear candy,” he says. “I put those sounds on top, like flutes, or voices, or lead synths. I call my whole setup a bed— my Rhodes is the mattress, the piano is the covers, and the Motif XF sounds are my pillows!”

In addition to releasing Black Radio 2, Glasper recently recorded with Anita Baker, and has produced upcoming releases by Jill Scott, Chaka Khan, and Seun Kuti, Fela Kuti’s son. “No, I’m not doing much at all,” he jokes. “We’re going on tour next year, and I may do another trio record. And I’ve got a few other things on the table I can’t talk about yet.”

Whatever he does next, he’s sure to mix it up in unexpected ways. “I have something for everybody,” Glasper says. “A lot of jazz cats, when they get in front of people who don’t listen to jazz, they’re like, ‘Oh, this is my time. I’m going to hit them over the head with all this jazz while I got ’em.’ The problem is, those people don’t come back, ever. So I’m not going to beat them over the head with it. There’s a method to my madness!”