Robert Glasper leans into the drama

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Robert Glasper leans into the drama
Robert Glasper preforms with the Robert Glasper Trio at the Blue Note jazz club in Brooklyn on Oct. 11, 2018. The Blue Note residency (and a related festival in Napa Valley) unites Glasper’s extended universe of friends and forebears in one setting. (Vincent Tullo/The New York Times)

by Reggie Ugwu

NEW YORK, NY.- In February, on the night of this year’s Grammy Awards, pianist, producer and composer Robert Glasper was enjoying himself in the audience at the Microsoft Theater when he realized he didn’t have his phone. He had given it to his assistant earlier in the evening, before taking the stage to accept the award for best R&B album — his second win in that category and fifth career Grammy.

When he retrieved the phone, Glasper saw that it was filled with messages about R&B singer Chris Brown, who was among the nominees whom he had just bested. Brown had reacted to the loss with a discourteous post to his 131 million followers on Instagram: “Who the [expletive] is Robert Glasper,” appending a crying laughing emoji to the word “who.”

The comment, which Brown followed with a video comparing his success on the record charts to Glasper’s, was an attempt to undercut his rival’s achievement. But Brown had fallen into a trap. Over the previous 10 years, Glasper had been methodically chipping away at the boundaries between jazz — the music for which he originally became known — hip-hop and R&B. In some ways, his winning album, “Black Radio III,” was designed to force precisely the kind of showdown with contemporary Black popular music that Brown’s intemperate posting had unwittingly supplied.

Scrolling through his phone at the venue, Glasper was almost giddy.

“Oh, yeah,” he thought to himself. “This is going to be great.”

Glasper, 45, whose long face and soft features are capped by closely trimmed hair, ascended the ranks of modern jazz nearly 20 years ago. Born and raised in Houston, he arrived in New York to study at the New School of Jazz and Contemporary Music in 1997, right as the neo-soul movement, pioneered by artists like D’Angelo and Erykah Badu, was integrating jazz instrumentation and vocal performance into a chart-topping variant of R&B.

At the New School, Glasper befriended the singer Bilal, a member of a loose musicians collective called the Soulquarians with D’Angelo, Badu, the producer J Dilla, and the rappers Common, Yasiin Bey (then known as Mos Def) and Talib Kweli, among others. The group shared recording space at Electric Lady Studios and occasionally attended concerts together. At the same time, Glasper was getting an education in the world of straight-ahead jazz while playing piano in bands led by Christian McBride and Russell Malone — both took him on tour, at the expense of his attendance record — and forming his own acoustic trio.

His first album, “Mood” (2004) and two follow-ups for Blue Note Records, “Canvas” (2005) and “In My Element” (2007), hewed largely traditional, with an occasional nod to hip-hop, as on the “In My Element” track “J Dillalude.” But by the release of his fourth album, “Double Booked” (2009) — half featuring the Robert Glasper Trio and half featuring a new electric fusion ensemble called “The Robert Glasper Experiment” — Glasper’s inner Soulquarian was edging into view.

“Real jazz is supposed to reflect the times you’re in; that’s the true history and tradition of the music,” he said. “I’m not supposed to sound like Thelonious Monk did when I have so much more music to be influenced by.”

The “Black Radio” series, which Glasper described as a distillation of his brand, made breathing room for those influences. The first album, released in 2012, featured several of his neo-soul compatriots — Badu, Bilal, Musiq Soulchild — as well as rapping from Lupe Fiasco and Bey, with covers of songs by David Bowie and Nirvana thrown in for good measure.

“Black Radio” earned Glasper his first Grammy Award (for best R&B album) and set him on a collision course with popular culture not seen from a jazz musician this century. He played piano on several tracks of Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” released a remix album with the house music producer Kaytranada and was recruited by actor Don Cheadle to compose the score for “Miles Ahead,” a 2015 biopic of Miles Davis.

“He has that desire to get to the next level,” said Common, who appeared on “Black Radio 2” (2013) and formed the group August Greene with Glasper and the drummer/producer Karriem Riggins. “He wants to be the one that people will look to and say, ‘Yeah, he was the greatest of that time.’”

Last month, Glasper arrived at a recording studio in downtown Brooklyn, New York, to work on his latest film score, for a documentary about Luther Vandross, one of his mother’s favorite artists. “The first time I fell in love with acoustic piano wasn’t Duke Ellington, or Monk, or Herbie — it was Luther,” he said, crediting Nat Adderley Jr., Vandross’ longtime pianist and arranger. His large frame was draped in a black T-shirt with a portrait of Dilla, whose idiosyncratic production style inspired a generation of hip-hop and jazz musicians before and after his death in 2006.

“Watching him work changed the way I play,” Glasper said.

A couple of days after the session, Glasper would fly to Johannesburg for nearly two weeks to play festival dates. He is also working on a Christmas EP and composing another film score, for a documentary about Billy Preston. Wednesday, back in New York, he began his annual, monthlong residency at the Blue Note Jazz club, colloquially known as “Robtoberfest.” The residency (and a related festival in Napa Valley) unites his extended universe of friends and forebears in one setting. It has become known for drawing A-list surprise performers (Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock are fans) and, this year, will mix tributes to giants such as Herbie Hancock and Art Blakey with featured performances from Bey, Norah Jones, Yebba, D Smoke, Terrace Martin and Kamasi Washington, among others.

“It’s a reflection of his unique contribution to music,” said Alex Kurland, the director of programming at the Blue Note. “He enables everyone around him to sound great and to feel great.”

Since the pandemic, Glasper has lived full time in Los Angeles. He got an apartment there in 2017 on the suggestion of Martin (with whom he, Washington and producer 9th Wonder perform as Dinner Party) and to be closer to the film business. He composed the music for the 2020 film “The Photograph,” starring Issa Rae and LaKeith Stanfield, and for the television series “Run the World,” “The Best Man: The Final Chapters” and “Winning Time.” (He has also appeared in front of the camera, including in a small role on Showtime’s “Black Monday,” the since-canceled series Cheadle starred in and executive produced.)

Of his many jobs, Glasper said he finds scoring the most challenging. It requires two acts of translation — from image to sound, and from director to composer — for which his background as an artist provided little preparation.

“Directors will ask you to do weird things: ‘I need this to feel melancholy — but in a calypso way,’” he said, laughing. “But it’s good exercise. Ease can be a bad thing, and making my own music, a lot of times, is easy.”

During the pandemic, he was inspired to make “Black Radio III” in part because his usual, “easy,” recording methods were unavailable to him. Instead of inviting musicians to jam live in a studio, he worked more like a hip-hop producer, crafting beats and soliciting vocal performances remotely. The result — featuring, among many others, H.E.R., Ty Dolla Sign and, on a special edition produced in partnership with the streetwear label Supreme, Mac Miller — is the most accessible and thoroughly modern music Glasper has released.

Even Brown eventually had to pay his respects. The day after his viral Grammys outburst, the singer posted a public apology: “After doing my research I actually think your amazing,” he wrote.

Glasper gladly accepted — and quickly printed “Who the [expletive] is Robert Glasper?” on T-shirts.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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