It is popular for artists to say that their music defies genre labels. They insist that their music exists separate from simplified categories such as: hip hop, country, or R&B. Contrary to that trend jazz pianist Robert Glasper does not shy away from his jazz roots and affiliation. Over the last decade Glasper has developed a unique sound that has allowed him to perform with everyone from soul singer Maxwell to pop star Kanye West.

As a learned jazz musician who grew up playing in Houston churches and listening to hip hop he sees jazz as “an improvised version of what’s going on around me.” His wealth of musical influences and experience is what allowed him to drop the Ahmad Jamal piano sample made famous in De La Soul’s “Stakes is High” into his 2009 version of Thelonious Monk’s “Think of One.” Rather than sounding gimmicky, Glasper’s use of jazz as a medium through which to unite his musical influences gives his take on jazz a freshness that is hard to ignore.

I recently spoke with the personable Glasper during a brief pit stop back home to Brooklyn. He had just finished performing with his experimental group, The RCDC Experiment, at Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland and he was prepping to leave and perform in Japan. But the brief trips home and the constant travel are Glasper’s new normal. He and two of the members of the RCDC Experiment (drummer Chris Dave and bassist Derrick Hodge) spent large stretches of the past year as members of the band supporting singer Maxwell’s highly successful BLACKsummer’s Night Tour. Not content to just play with the singer, often RCDC used their open dates around the country to set up “impromptu jam sessions.” I caught one of these gigs last year in Atlanta. There was no set list, but the RCDC Experiment spent nearly two hours exploring new interpretations of Dilla beats and classic songs such as Michael Jackson’s “Cant Help It.” It was one of those shows that required a listener who was willing to follow the musicians because it was not about the destination of the music, but about the journey.

Although Glasper grew up playing gospel, classical, and jazz, he’s had a love for diverse genres of music. Then, in the late 1990s, he moved to New York City for college. He could not have picked a better time to move. He settled in a Brooklyn neighborhood that was teeming with successful hip hop/soul artists including Bilal Oliver, Common, Erykah Badu, Mos Def and others. His work with them and legendary producer J Dilla built his reputation as a jazz pianist with strong hip hop sensibilities. Naturally, when it was Glasper’s turn to release his album, many of his talented friends returned the favor. As a lover of melody and vocalists Glasper sees no need to compete with the artists featured on his music. He understands that their presence helps him reach an even larger audience with his music. With his ego in check, Glasper explains, “I don’t feel the need to prove anything. I just want to make good music.”

Glasper realized his musical vision by forming two complementary ensembles. The Robert Glasper Trio provides straight ahead jazz while the RCDC Experiment is continually stretches the boundaries of jazz. The RCDC Experiment allows Glasper to combine various music styles seamless. It is where Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” and Radiohead’s “Everything in Its Right Place” sound as if they were meant to be united on the same track. For Glasper that is precisely the point: to create a space where various musical styles can integrate and “make babies.”

Glasper aims to be the “soundtrack of your thoughts.” Equally capable of displaying the technical prowess of Art Tatum or the melodic creativity of Herbie, Glasper sole musical goal is to create “good music.” He explains that the means by which he achieves that goal is not nearly as important as the fact that he creates music that people enjoy. In his own performance a entire song may go by without a piano solo. Or upon listening to his Grammy-nominated song “All Matter” you may be so focused on singing along with Bilal on the chorus, that you may not realize the harmonic complexity Glasper has laid underneath. It is all by design. Glasper is not interested in overwhelming the listener with technical ability, but rather seeks balance between complexity and simplicity in his music. In a lesson learned from playing in churches he says that, “When you cloud a song with too much stuff, you block the spirit from coming in.”

Disinterested in boundaries imposed on jazz by the “jazz police,” Glasper is focused on allowing his sound to evolve and continue to reflect what is going on around him. As a native Houstonian, a Brooklynite, a father, a world traveler, and a hip hop fan, there is no shortage of plenty of activity around him. Yet in between gigs and collaborations, the 32-year-old Glasper is working on his fourth album (scheduled to be released in early 2012 on Blue Note). I asked him what listeners can expect on his yet to be titled project, he replied “lots of cameos.” The list of featured artists is a venerable roster of vocalists that includes: Ledisi, and Lalah Hathaway, and the up and coming trio KING.

In an age where pop music that is catchy and danceable is the most successful, Glasper has created a space among young artists for his own interpretation of jazz. His philosophy of jazz as a medium that has always and should continue to evolve has allowed him to follow the lead of jazz greats Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Branford Marsalis who saw strength in the music’s ability to incorporate what was going on around it. Glasper notes that if Usher wanted to break out into a blues in the middle of a concert, his fans might think he was crazy. Glasper treasures the creative freedom he has as a jazz musician. He has created a space for himself where he does not have to choose between straight ahead an experimental music or between jazz and hip hop. For him jazz is the limitless musical reflection of his life. Wherever he goes next, his music will follow.

Photos by Scott Stewart, for more of Scott’s work checkout his site HERE.

Words by Fredara Mareva

Also, don’t forget the free Robert Glasper show with special guest Pharoahe Monch tonight at DROM.

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