As a lover of hip-hop music, I find myself looking for musical bridges between hip-hop and jazz. One of the first bridges was Herbie Hancock, a jazz musician using hip hop elements like scratching in his 1983 release of “Rockit.” Years later, an avalanche of jazz records started to be sampled by hip hop producers and when rapper Guru invited jazz musicians to collaborate on his 1993 “Jazzamatazz” series, the genre “Jazz Rap” was created. If all of this is as interesting to you as it is to me, then you’ll want to know the importance of Robert Glasper, a musician who has built a few of those bridges. Black Radio, volumes I-III is an exploration in the genre multiverse of Black music. Want to dive into a lush piano-driven fusion of neo-soul, rock, jazz, R&B, hip-hop and gospel? The Black Radio volumes are a great guide for the journey.
Glasper has lived a life filled with music. As a child, his mother, a professional jazz and blues performer, would take him with her when performing. His musical start was in a Baptist church, under the music direction of his mother. There he played piano, learning how to hear, match and layer different harmonies of gospel and jazz music. In 1997, Glasper headed to New York to study music at the New School of Jazz and Contemporary. During the day, he learned jazz technique and standards. At night, he and his roommate, vocalist Bilal, immersed themselves in a new musical scene called neo-soul, created by the collective called The Soulquarians. Members of this group included Questlove, Erykah Badu, J Dilla and rapper Yasiin Bey (Mos Def), Glasper would later become his musical director. In 2005, Glasper signed to jazz label Blue Note Records.
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Black Radio, Glasper’s fifth album was released in 2012. The album made it to both the jazz and R&B charts and would win the Grammy for Best R&B album. This album is a ride into jazz, with heavy experimentation into different genres of Black modern music. Black Radio’s list of featured artists reads like the who’s who of current neo-soul, hip-hop and R&B music. The intro, “Lift Off,” is a sound blessing narrated by Shafiq Husayn, with Glasper, who provides his vocal flourishes via the voice box. Glasper modernizes Mongo Santamaria’s classic jazz standard “Afro Blue,” with the piano providing a smooth adult contemporary feel‚ while Badu’s voice is like honey on the track.
And that’s what I really love about this series, Glasper’s thoughtful approach to matching the music to the vocalists on each album. All of the volumes flow with the layering and melding of hip-hop, neo-soul, R&B, jazz and even rock. A true journey into Black music without the boundaries. Glasper has perfected his approach to layering sounds. We listeners are blessed to be able to hear it. Also check out his Kennedy Center performance of the Black Radio series here.