In a recent NPR interview Robert Glasper was very clear that “jazz is the father of hip-hop – without jazz there would be no hip-hop”. But despite this ancestral link, these two genres are rarely put together. Admittedly I saw British jazz/hip-hopper Soweto Kinch play in the capital only last month, but it is still a notable event for these two sounds to meet so directly. Robert Glasper Experiment plays them off against each other, pulling other genres into the mix and, despite having a pianist as the lead, placing a huge emphasis on vocals.
One of the keys to this album is the freshness of Robert Glasper’s playing. It is this malleable any-direction jazz that backs each of the tracks on new album Black Radio. Punctuated with beautiful chord changes and sensitive rhythms for the vocals to rebound against, this is a hugely varied album that really grows with each listen. What are at first seemingly disparate tracks build into a solid beautifully formed whole.
Perhaps strangely for an album that aims for new territory, there are actually a number of covers on this album, including Sade’s ‘Cherish the Day’ and even Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. Nirvana tracks have been visited by jazz musicians before (The Bad Plus and Yaron Herman Trio for starters) and the simple base can provide a great springboard for improvisation. I have to admit that the vocoder version on this album isn’t the highlight for me. What makes the other covers excellent are the fabulous voices, which is obviously not quite the same with the interesting, but ultimately very synthesized sound.
This is an album of stark contrasts. Strong vocals from Lalah Hathaway on ‘Cherish the Day’ are beautifully echoing, and at the opposite end of the scale the staccato rap on ‘Always Shine’ features some excellent lyrics, including “ninja turtles pouring out of manholes”. The absolute winner on this album is a really sensual version of ‘Afro Blue’, sung by Erykah Badu. It’s a real gem, casually popped in as the second track after the chilled Soweto Kinch-like riffs in ‘Lift Off/Mic Check’.
Black Radio is full of the energy behind the group’s name. The experiment element isn’t lost, with mic tests of the guest vocalists all mixed over each other at the end of the opening track, and spoken pieces elsewhere. It’s genuinely exciting to listen to. Glasper’s piano is the constant throughout, showing just how adaptable the key elements of jazz can be when bent to any amazing tune thrown its way.
Black Music is out on Blue Note Records on February 27th and Robert Glasper Experiment play the Barbican on May 14th .