February 28, 2012
Robert Glasper has certainly been influenced by the legendary Herbie Hancock. The latter, of course, has been successful in creating original jazz masterpieces but also in having a deft touch when exploring different avenues on cover songs. Black Radio pushes the boundaries on reimaginations of tracks from Sade and David Bowie. However, Glasper also shares a co-writing credit on seven other tracks on the album showing that he also has the talent to create exciting music of his own.
While Glasper planted his roots in the jazz fields early in his career, The Robert Glasper Experiment’s mission is to branch beyond a single genre. Much like Roy Hargrove’s RH Factor in the mid-2000s, Glasper’s group projects its sound waves through soul and hip-hop in producing his version of black radio. To that end it’s primarily a neo soul record, one that would have been in great company in the sub-genre’s heyday alongside the aforementioned RH Factor, the forgotten Jon B. group Jack Herrera, Floetry, D’Angelo, and Jill Scott. Perhaps that vibe is proliferated by his choice of guest personnel including the likes of Lalah Hathaway, Musiq Soulchild, Bilal, and Erykah Badu.
Underpinning the vibes are Glasper’s nimble fingers. During the outro of “Ah Yeah,” Glasper effortlessly glides up and down the piano like the jazz veteran he is. Sixteenth notes and beyond grace his performance, but it’s his ability to stop on a dime during a run on the keys and then continue again that gives it a thoughtfulness that would make Hancock tip his hat. The mix of a sultry backdrop laced with Fender Rhodes, beautifully blended harmonies as the track expands its introduction, and Glasper’s inflections are a great example of why neo soul garnered a legion of fans even as it failed to sustain enough steam to outlast (and outcast) dancefloor R&B from the radio.
Glasper, along with his cohorts Derrick Hodge (bass), Chris Dave (drums/percussion), and Casey Benjamin (saxophone/flute/synthesizer/vocoder), are out to create their version of what black radio could sound like if business was kept separate from artistry. On their version of the Nirvana classic “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” grunge has been cast aside and replaced with groove. Benjamin’s vocoder skills are put to task creating a dreamy sequence, and Lalah Hathaway appears on the coda as the song wraps. Whereas the two vocalists presented a straightforward, if relatively flat, interpretation of Sade’s “Cherish The Day” early in the album, they inject weirdness and beauty into a version that meanders somewhere between conscious and unconscious worlds.
Jazz purists may be taken aback, but Glasper’s vision of melding the worlds of hip-hop, soul, and jazz is a thoughtful take on an idea that has been explored ad nauseum. Black Radio is Glasper’s vision of what the airwaves could sound like – a mixtape of sorts – that may not reignite a new movement to overtake popular radio as we know it today, but it’s a concept that should be applauded for a group of artists who believe in chops over charts.