As we get closer to jazz pianists Jason Moran and Robert Glasper’s performances at the Walker on Saturday night, I continue to explore their artistic careers as they both embrace and challenge the establishment of jazz. Their concert will pay homage to the giants of black music that have influenced them, while also presenting original compositions pulled from each of their extensive catalogs. Their historic jazz renditions will pick up where the old guard left off, gesturing to artistic legacies but never lingering. By traversing new terrain through their own compositions, both hold an inspiring capacity to respond to and expand upon the contemporary jazz milieu. Embracing the amorphous nature of genre, their music is a fresh look at the interdisciplinary history of jazz in the making.
Following last week’s profile of Jason Moran, we now spotlight the acclaimed jazz musician and two-time Grammy award winner Robert Glasper. Glasper also arrives at the Walker with a robust musical sensibility and international acclaim. While both artists attended Houston’s High School for Performing Arts, Moran graduated just before Glasper enrolled. Although they were not classmates, Glasper is quick to recall the influence Moran played throughout his high school career. He remembers teachers saying to him, “you might be able to be the next Jason Moran!” In a WBGO interview last year, Moran responds with equal humility to Glasper’s compliment by describing the incredible technicality and talent that Glasper possesses when playing the piano. Moran describes how he commands a “dizzying, rapid-fire precision,” when playing, as if the record was intentionally sped up.
Glasper identifies his mother, Kim Yvette Glasper, the powerful jazz, blues, and gospel singer, as his main musical influence. By age 12, he was already accompanying her on the piano at church and local Houston clubs. After high school Glasper studied at the The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Art in New York City where he began composing songs and developing his musical network. Like Moran, Glasper has never limited himself to the confines of straight-ahead jazz. In an interview with DownBeat, he refers to himself as “a big house of many rooms” with jazz being just one of them. “There’s a lot of other stuff in there,” he continues, “This is my way of putting all my rooms together and making a thought, and whatever you determine that thought should be called, I don’t really care. I’d rather somebody not be able to totally define stuff that I do, because that brings a certain normalcy to it. And jazz could use some abnormal shit, to be honest.” Synthesizing jazz, R&B, and hip-hop, Glasper translates multiple musical genres into formats that actively resist any definition and enable him to collaborate with songwriters, poets, vocalists, spoken word artists, and actors.
When collaborating with other musicians, Glasper privileges the collective over the individual musician. Moran agrees and notes the importance of finding ways to “maintain your identity” through other avenues besides solos. Remarking on the collaborative nature of Glasper’s live performances, Moran states, “Robert has taken [the Robert Glasper Experiment] to a place where the options that each musician has is really just to support each other, it’s not just to be the backup for the solo. And the solo is barely existent, and it was a really nice thing to hear. [It was] really generous, but fulfilling at the same time for all of us in the audience.”
While he has a definite fluency in the jazz idiom, Glasper also maintains a rigorous interdisciplinary approach to his work. He welcomes the diversity of talents that each contributor can bring. His critically acclaimed 2012 album Black Radio by the Robert Glasper Experiment stands as a testaments to this commitment. Black Radio (featuring collaborators Erykah Badu, Bilal, Lalah Hathaway, Yasiin Bey, Musiq Soulchild, Chrisette Michele, and more) won the Grammy Award for Best R&B Album. Through this multifaceted, creative exchange, Glasper presents a soulful critique of mainstream musical standards. Overcoming entrenched divides between musical genres, Glasper invents a new stage to proclaim the personal and political through his music.
Earlier this year, the 12-track album Black Radio 2 (featuring Jill Scott, Dwele, Luke James, Common, Marsha Ambrosius, Patrick Stump, Faith Evans, Norah Jones, Snoop Dogg, Lupe Fiasco, Emeli Sandé, Lalah Hathaway, Brandy, Anthony Hamilton), won the award for Best Traditional R&B Performance. Robert Glasper Experiment’s reinterpretation of Stevie Wonder’s “Jesus Children Of America” commemorates the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that occurred in December of 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut. The actor and poet Malcolm-Jamal Warner contributed an original spoken-word poem to the song, and singer Lalah Hathaway provided the vocals. Glasper recalls the personal significance of this moment: “The very first time I performed that song live was during a Stevie Wonder tribute on the day the Sandy Hook tragedy took place…I’d also found out that a close friend lost his daughter in the tragedy. So when we did the Stevie song, I almost lost it. It hit close to home, because I have a four-year-old son.” Glasper manages to use his multidisciplinary aesthetic not only to expand cultural definitions of jazz, but to make statements of great personal and political import.
Just as Moran discusses the feeling of a “persistent jabbing” after viewing Adrian Piper’s work and a powerful “wake up” to make use of his personal history, Glasper expresses a similar need to intertwine the personal and the political into his music. He maintains an acute awareness of the social undertones of his music. Glasper notes, “Jazz musicians are becoming more comfortable with music that speaks to them personally. I think it’s very important that musicians feed off the fruit of the music that actually is the soundtrack of their lives. The only way to keep something relevant is to renew it from history and let it grow and change. When that happens, you start getting stuff like Black Radio 2.” He adds, “Black people have invented so many dope genres that everyone loves: Jazz, blues, gospel, R&B, rock, hip-hop, and the list goes on. I’m just visiting all those rooms. It’s my mansion; it’s our mansion. I don’t have to exclude anything.” Moran and Glasper’s music interrogates traditional musical forums and demonstrates how they hold all the more relevancy when placed in the context of the social and political terms of our times.
Glasper made his opinion of the contemporary jazz scene quite clear when he told DownBeat, “I’ve gotten bored with jazz to the point where I wouldn’t mind something bad happening. Slapping hurts, but at some point it’ll wake you up. I feel like jazz needs a big-ass slap.” In a similar vein, Moran spoke to his impatience with what he perceives as jazz’s limiting performance format. While the music grows from creativity and passion, the performance can often be presented in a rigid space. Moran and Glasper both manipulate the music, reconstructing jazz history in order to alter any expectations the audience may harbor. Or, as Moran phrases it, he wants to “wipe the slate clean” by beginning a performance with something you wouldn’t expect.
The collaboration between Moran and Glasper will be unpredictable; the musicians will take you into the folds of their compositions, both rigorous in approach and brave in its improvisation. Riding and resisting the rhythm, the two artists remain stronger together. Their music enriches the audience’s understanding of the living legacy of the historic figures in not just jazz, but also R&B, soul, gospel, blues, boogie-woogie, rap, and classical. The synchronicity and disjuncture of their chords creates an effortless relational composition that harks on the momentous movement of Glasper and Moran’s music. They will punctuate the room with recognizable melodies and rhythms, only to whisk the audience away in anticipation of a new kind of jazz in the making. Speaking the same language through their pianos, together they leave their mark on both music and culture. But let their music speak for itself.
Jason Moran and Robert Glasper perform at the Walker Art Center’s McGuire Theater on Saturday, May 2nd at 8:00 pm (sold out) and 10:30 pm (limited tickets available).