A product of the same Houston high school program (HSVPA) that produced Jason Moran, Helen Sung, Beyonce, Eric Harland and other luminaries in contemporary music, keyboardist Robert Glasper has been leading his own groups since the beginning of this century. He came to NYC to study music at the New School and worked around the region with his trio for several years before being signed to Blue Note Records, which released his major label debut album Canvas in 2004. Since then he’s recorded nearly a dozen albums for Blue Note and his 2012 album Black Radio won a Grammy for the Best R&B Album.
He’s also collaborated with artists across genres such as hip-hop and R&B, including Bilal and Mos Def, for whom he served as musical director. Glasper is a prolific record producer, having helmed sessions for Lionel Loueke, Terrace Martin, Lil John Roberts, as well as for the soundtrack of the Miles Davis biopic film Miles Ahead. In addition to performing and touring with his own groups, Glasper also performs with the Blue Note All Stars, alongside Ambrose Akinmusire, Lionel Loueke, Marcus Strickland, Derrick Hodge and Kendrick Scott.
Glasper will be performing with R+R=NOW on Blue Note at Sea in January 2019.
He spoke with Lee Mergner in 2017 about his long relationship with Blue Note Records, his affinity for comedians and what makes jazz grow.
Lee Mergner: You’ve been a Blue Note artist for some time, going from the Bruce Lundvall era to the current Don Was era. Did Bruce sign you? What was your relationship with him?
Robert Glasper: Bruce signed me in 2005. My manager Nicole Hegeman knew Eli Wolf who was doing A&R there. I had been doing some shows around the city and she invited Eli to come out to my shows. He liked what he heard from my trio, so he invited Bruce Lundvall to come down to see me play at the Blue Note. He heard me play live. From there he asked me if I wanted to be a Blue Note recording artist.
A signing like that now seems old school.
Exactly. But I had been playing around the city with my trio for five years, so it was one of those things where you don’t give up, you just keep going. Playing in bars where there’s no one there but the bartender.
Bruce was such a gentleman and a lover of the music.
Totally. He was a lover of the music and the musicians. He has a love for the music unlike most people in his position in the business. Usually the head of a record label is more business oriented vs. having a love for the music. He really looked out for the musicians.
What has it been like to work with Don Was and the label? Likewise, he’s a real music guy.
That’s what’s great about him. It really works for me to have someone who loves music across genres, the way Don does. He’s so well-respected and well-loved, and respected musically as well. To have an iconic music producer and musician in this position for jazz cats, and especially for me, is great. I don’t necessarily stick with one genre. It’s like a hand in a glove. Don totally gets me, which I love as well.
You’re a producer yourself, having produced many records for other artists. Have you learned anything from him about that process?
Don understands what being an artist is. Some producers don’t know what being an artist is like. They don’t know what that feels like. Don being an artist-producer like myself, I learned from him about giving the artist room and that’s how you get the best results out of the artist. He gets the best out of the artists without them losing themselves. He knows how to stay out of the way when it’s time to stay out of the way. And when it’s time to say something, he knows when to say, how to say it and how to make it work, without doing too much. Some producers want to do too much. Sometimes being a producer is knowing when not to say something. Knowing when to let things roll and unfold. That’s something I learned from him.
You’re the leader of the Blue Note All Stars group, if the band could be said to have a leader. All-star groups can be a tricky proposition. How was the group formed? How do you make sure it’s a band and not just an all-star configuration?
These are the guys that have been on Blue Note for many years and I’ve known them all for many years. The good thing about this is that we’ve all played with each other already in different situations. It makes is so much easier when we come together as a band. It sounds like a group, because they’re all great in their own right and they all have albums and they know how to pass the ball. It’s not a bunch of point guards on this team.
Or shooting guards.
Right, exactly. The main thing is that we play music and have fun. Nobody has to prove anything. It’s great. Aside from being good musicians, they’re all great people. They’re people I don’t mind being around.
That’s so important that is with a band.
It’s very important. It’s not to say that you’re not going to run into problems and get into arguments, that’s normal. The chemistry in general is about whether you get along or not.
You had sailed on the original Blue Note cruise on the Queen Mary going to the UK. What were your impressions of the Blue Note at Sea Cruise this past year (2017)?
It was very cool. It was hipper and it was a younger crowd. The bands on there were just killer. They had the Bad Plus, Joshua Redman, Lalah Hathaway, Marcus Miller, David Sanborn. Every day there was something I wanted to watch and wanted to go see. Good for me as a listener.
That’s an underrated aspect, because with festivals and tours you’re running from the airport to the hotel to the soundcheck and you don’t often get to hear the other groups.
Exactly. To watch a show with my fellow musicians is cool. And we have time to sit down and talk with each other, maybe while we’re eating. Just hanging out. It’s like a festival that you’re stuck at for a week.
Michael Lazaroff told us about the Super Bowl party, which he thought was a special time for all. But Marcus Miller said that you had to play a show then.
That’s right. I had to play for the first half of the Super Bowl. I was so pissed. I missed the first half. When we finished I ran up and saw the second half. I wasn’t as emotionally attached to the game because they saw Atlanta was winning. They were there for that. I came in when it was comeback time for New England.
What did you think of the audience? They’re so knowledgeable and passionate about the music.
I like that interaction with an audience.
And you also got to see Alonzo Bodden too, right? Did you enjoy his act? You’re a bit of a comedian yourself.
Yes, we hung out a lot, and he hung out with me recently in LA. From that cruise, we became friends. I did a show in LA and he came and hung out. He’s a really funny guy. I told him that there’s no need for those muscles. It’s a waste of muscle to tell jokes. Everybody always thinks he’s Alonzo Bodden’s bodyguard.
Did you learn anything about the craft of comedy from watching him?
No, I didn’t pick up any of that. I know a lot of comedians. That show I invited Alonzo to, Dave Chappelle and Wayne Brady were my other guests. People say I’m a comedian myself, but I just love laughing. Me and comedians get along really well. I definitely watched Alonzo free-style, when someone says something to them and they come back in the moment, which is very jazz. You’re reacting to something that’s happening in the moment. It you can’t do that, then you’re not a jazz musician. When a comic can come back with something when someone says something to them, that’s my favorite type of comic—the jazz comic.
They call that crowd work and some guys do it and some don’t. Alonzo definitely does it and does it well.
You want to see those people who really create in the moment, because you’ll see them perform every time. You don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s going to be something different each time. If you get somebody who does the same test every time, then there’s no in the moment happening. You’ll go see them once. But with somebody that’s spontaneous, everything that happens it keeps you wanting to go back. That’s awesome that he’s on this cruise again.
You are a funny guy yourself. I included you in a piece for JazzTimes about the funniest jazz musicians.
That was you? Oh, thanks. I can’t remember everyone on that list, but I remember that you had Russell Malone – he’s hilarious.
Yes, his material on Facebook seems right out of Henny Youngman.
I was in Russell’s band for three years when I was in college. I toured with Russell for pretty much my whole college career. I took my son to see him at the Vanguard last week. I hadn’t seen him play in person in a few years. So I went by to surprise him with my son. There’s never a dull moment with him. You know who I just found out is funny, from the cruise? Peter Martin. Did you know he was funny?
No, I didn’t.
You know why? Because you never get a chance to see him play his own set. But on the [Blue Note at Sea] cruise, he played a trio set on the ship. He got to emcee and talk on the mic. He’s hilarious.
What’s his style?
He told funny stories and told jokes. That was my first time hanging out with him. He’s a naturally funny guy.
You don’t prepare jokes or material, right? It seems like you just wing it up there.
No, no, I just wing it. Exactly. I don’t prepare anything that way. I just bring my personality onto the stage. The guy who I am off the stage is who I am on. I think that’s what works for me.
That’s true of Christian McBride too. It’s a natural thing.
He was actually the first tour I did when I moved to New York. He took me on tour when I first got [there], when I was a freshman in college. I remember he had to call my mom every night after the show to let her know that I was OK.
Yea, “Everything’s fine, Mrs. Glasper, I think he’s asleep now.”
You know what’s funny is that I’m realizing that most of the people whose bands I was in were funny. I was in Mark Whitfield’s band too. He’s funny. Christian McBride, Mark Whitfield, Russell Malone…all funny guys.
You’re on your way up to New England where you’ll be performing at Wilco’s Solid Sound Festival. You do a lot of non-jazz events and venues. What do you enjoy about that?
I get to totally be free. When I do jazz shows in pure jazz venues, most people don’t get the musical jokes we throw in. Or when I decide to cross genres and do other [stuff], they don’t get it. A lot of it is the jazz snobbery. I have a whole thing with jazz snobs, because jazz is not a pure music. It’s a mutt. But yet the jazz establishment are anti-mixing. It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t go with what jazz is. They’re jazz purists and they want the music to be traditionalist, but the tradition of jazz is that it always changes. It always moves.
It’s a big umbrella.
Yes, it’s a big umbrella and it’s supposed to get bigger. We need to understand that when music is mixed with it, then that’s a good thing, because it’s growing past you. It’s not about you.
Look at Lionel Loueke who has brought the sounds of his Benin homeland to the jazz genre. It’s jazz, but it’s very different from Wes Montgomery and the guitarists that preceded him and influenced him.
Exactly. It lets you know that how much jazz is influencing the world and influencing world culture. The more it grows and the more it incorporates [stuff] that you don’t understand, that’s the better and the longer it’s going to live.