He folds his leather coat into a wad, sets it on top of the piano and guides his band into John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” Casey Benjamin chants Coltrane’s three-word refrain through a vocoder as if reciting a sort of techno-spiritual prayer. Mark Colenburg’s drumming evokes a typewriter speaking in tongues. Glasper sits back. His chords hang in the air like fog. After certain passages, he returns to that distorted, buzzing note, transforming a technical difficulty into an exclamation point.
Eleven hours earlier, Glasper has just arrived in Austin and it’s his phone that’s buzzing with with text messages from his friends Questlove and Yasiin Bey (Glasper still calls the recently re-christened rapper Mos Def).
The screenshot on his phone is a grab of the latest Billboard hip-hop and R&B albums chart. His band, the Robert Glasper Experiment, sits at No. 4. “Whitney Houston, Young Jeezy, Jay-Z and Kanye West, Estelle, Mary J. Blige — under us,” he says, chewing on a toothpick.
“Black Radio” has topped Billboard’s jazz charts, too. But Glasper is more excited that his music is crossing over to new ears while stirring up a jazz world that he feels has been locked in stasis for decades. With cameos from rappers Bey and Lupe Fiasco, singers Erykah Badu, Bilal, Chrisette Michele, Stokley Williams of Mint Condition and others, “Black Radio” smudges the borders between hip-hop, rhythm and blues, and jazz, with Glasper’s acoustic piano playing providing the music’s unbreakable spine.
“I think I’m bringing jazz to the forefront for people who normally don’t check out jazz,” he says.“They aren’t gonna receive it if you’re playing a Charlie Parker song. But they’ll receive it if you have Erykah Badu singing.”
Glasper grew up on artists who thrived at the intersection of jazz and R&B — Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Gil Scott-Heron, Donald Byrd, Roy Ayers. “Those are just people who didn’t care,” he says of his pantheon.
But his mother, the late jazz vocalist Kim Yvette Glasper, was his greatest influence. Instead of leaving her only son at home with a babysitter, she brought Glasper to the nightclubs where she performed. Hearing his mother sing there and in church steered him toward the piano where he quickly learned to pick songs off the radio. It earned him entry to Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts — the same school that produced Beyonce, and the Kennedy Center’s current artistic adviser for jazz, pianist Jason Moran. After graduating, Glasper headed off to the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York, where he immediately gravitated toward R&B singer Bilal in a student jam session.