Interview with Robert Glasper

(This interview was done during the 2017 Blue Note at Sea jazz cruise.)

(Update, 3/6: My response to some of those angry with Glasper and angry that I ran this interview.)

(3/13: Sarah Deming offers a post-storm essay: “My Husband, the Misogynist.”

Ethan Iverson:  There’s a story I heard about Herbie Hancock at soundcheck. Herbie was setting up a bunch of keyboards, a huge rig, and Marcus Miller was setting up his bass stuff. Marcus was trying lots of different sounds and styles, and as he went along, Herbie would smoothly hit a switch so that his sounds and pads went right with whatever Marcus was playing.

Billy Hart also told me that for all Herbie’s greatness as a soloist, his even greater gift was as a band pianist.

I see you in that tradition as well. I heard you play a great trio set a couple of days ago, but I think you also love to “hook it up” for others.

Robert Glasper:  Yeah! I love being in that space. That’s one reason I love having my other band, the Experiment, because I play sideman. I love being the accompaniment to Casey Benjamin.

I love playing with singers, partly because I grew up playing for my Mom, who was a singer. We always played duo at home, and when I picked her up from her club gigs, she’d always make me play a few tunes with her. And, of course, playing in church is all accompaniment.

Sometimes I think of it like basketball: “Ok, you can score points, but can you get everyone else in the game? Can you assist? Because that’s how you win!”

A good musician also knows how to make bad situations good. We’ve both been in bad situations, right? Many! Then it is up to us to make something happen.

That’s the ultimate musician. And you’re right, that’s what Herbie is to me. Being fearless, not just as explorer, but as sacrificing your ego for the greater good.

I’m totally for that. All my favorite musicians are that.

EI:  Name some others.

RG:  Derrick Hodge; Jason Moran; Kendrick Scott. A lot of modern guys.

EI:  Do you feel this is a fertile moment?

RG:  Yeah! Totally. I feel like in the last 8 or 10 years people are finding their sound in jazz. People have come out into the scene that actually have a personality. That wasn’t necessarily the case when I was coming up.

Roy Hargrove was the first guy I saw that was hip. He was the only one. Roy came to my high school and had on overalls and Timberlands and I was like, “You can look like that and play jazz?!? Oh, snap! You look like me!”

Roy opened my eyes and catapulted me into being who I am. Now people feel it is more OK to look and sound like who they really are.

EI:  So this was the big change from the previous generation of Wynton and Branford.

RG:  Yes! Well, Branford always had a kind of “Fuck you!” approach, I loved that about Branford. Yeah, Wynton and Branford and the rest of the lions had their thing but the personal aspect, the “swag,” if you will, wasn’t there. They were still very jazz. Musically, Black Codes changed some things! With Tain and Kenny Kirkland, musically that was a change and was OK. But they were stretching only the jazz thread.

Now, jazz purists have a problem with mixing this, mixing that, but then jazz is so muddy anyway. How can say, “Don’t mix it further?” It is mixed!

When I ask a jazz purist who their favorite jazz musician is, they usually say, “Miles Davis.” I throw up my hands and say, “Now I’m really confused!”

So yeah, I think a lot of cats are coming up are unafraid to be themselves.

The problem with that is, I have a real foundation in jazz piano and jazz history. Some people following me, mixing hip-hop and R&B and jazz or whatever: they don’t have that foundation. If you’re not trying to play jazz, fine!  But you can’t say you are in the footsteps of various jazz greats if you haven’t done your homework. I always try to tell cats, “Study the music, too!”

EI:  Do think it is harder to play jazz than hip-hop or R&B?

RG:  Totally. Jazz is the hardest. It takes the technical capacity of classical music to play jazz, but at the same time you have to have imagination. You don’t have to have imagination to just play hip-hop or R&B or classical music.

Just to play jazz, right from the top, you have to have imagination. And pretty much be a master of your instrument besides! Just to play the music bad you need those things. I always say, a bad jazz musician is pretty much better than most musicians. Because, even a low level, just to play it at all you’ve got to be pretty fucking good! Just to play “Donna Lee” is hard! Most R&B cats can’t even get around their instruments enough to play “Donna Lee.”

No other genre is quite like that. It’s takes a whole lot of things to make a jazz player.

And, damn, you get paid less than anyone else in those other genres as well!

EI:  It’s true!

RG:  A classical star versus the jazz star?

EI:  Forget it.

RG:  R&B star versus the jazz star? Hip-hop star versus the jazz star?

I guess in general in music, the best cats don’t get the most money, anyway.

EI:  Does just the sheer economics of the situation influence your decisions in what you present?

RG:  Nah. The reality of it is, nothing I do makes a whole lot of money. But, nah, I’ve never sold out. I grew up with R&B and hip-hop first, before jazz. That’s my thread, that’s who I really am. I love R&B music. I love hip-hop music. At some point I want to do it.

And I want to make jazz current and cool again. It was already put in the museum and it was over. “Those were the cool guys and that was jazz and now it’s over.”

No, we’re still living and breathing, and the music is still here.

Also, if nobody has a problem with what you are doing, you probably aren’t doing something right.Hell, I know people have a problem with y’all!

EI:  The Bad Plus? Well, I always say, it’s an honor to be controversial.

RG:  Totally! There has to be a “fuck you” moment. All movements in the arts have a moment: “Fuck it. This is what it is.” Then it moves on, and people say it was great later.

Anyway, my thing was never really money. I wanted to be current. I really understood jazz and I really understood current music. A lot of time jazz cats are so out of the loop, they are in their own private movie. They know nothing of current musical events.

I was on the road with Bilal for years, in the hip-hop and R&B world, and at the same time playing with Kenny Garrett, Russell Malone and Christian McBride. I literally had my feet in both worlds. I was one of the few guys authentic in both worlds. I’d be playing with Maxwell and on my day off play a trio set. So I felt like combining them was my duty, what I was supposed to do.

I’ve had people tell me about your music. Like women you would think never listen to jazz: Young, fine, Euro chicks ask me, “I heard this band, the Bad Plus, do you know them?”

EI:  I guess that’s one of the reasons to play, really.

RG:  Yeah, it’s awesome, something is there in your music that gives them entrance to jazz, otherwise they’d never cross paths with it.

Now, I love playing a groove. Derrick Hodge, Chris Dave, and me: we’d used to sit and play a groove for hours. At rehearsals, soundchecks, or at my house. For hours we’d play a groove, and be fine with it. I don’t have to solo. I genuinely find joy in just playing as groove.

EI:  Herbie can do that too. He doesn’t need to solo.

RG:  Totally.

And I’ve seen what that does to the audience, playing that groove. I love making the audience feel that way. Getting back to women: women love that. They don’t love a whole lot of soloing. When you hit that one groove and stay there, it’s like musical clitoris. You’re there, you stay on that groove, and the women’s eyes close and they start to sway, going into a trance.

Or to be less sexual, sometimes I say I’m providing a house and you can provide the furniture. It’s a soundtrack, there’s space, and the audience put their own thoughts to it.

Sometimes jazz musicians, we fill up all the fucking space, so people can’t lose themselves in it.

Hip-hop to me is that, a repetitive mantra that can be like prayer. Some people think hip-hop is easy since it repeats all the time, but In the J Dilla school of hip-hop, it’s not. It’s not shit that’s on the beat all the time. It’s kinda early, kind of late, and to get that down and repeat it every four bars is not easy at all. You can’t even write it down, it’s a feel thing.

EI: It seems to me that the J Dilla school is the Africanization of the computer. He gets those rubs that came from a drum choir, not from a machine.

RG: Yeah! When you make beats, there’s a quantize plug-in that can be used for safety. But J Dilla always left everything unquantized.

There’s definitely an influence of Dilla in the playing of most musicians my age and younger.

EI:  One thing I felt about Wynton and Branford and the straight-ahead music of that generation was that it was pretty tight. The rhythms were really on a grid. But when you listen to Herbie, Ron and Tony….

RG:  …it is not on a grid! True dat.

EI:  That’s what I miss sometimes in that music: that secret sauce, kind of like what J Dilla gave hip-hop.

RG:  Yeah, older classic jazz records are sloppy in a good way.

You know what I think? Some of it is ego, a kind of ego about the beat. They take the beat too seriously.

EI:  They take the metronome too seriously.

RG:  The metronome! That! When did the metronome get so popular? Did cats back in the day use the metronome?

EI:  Lee Konitz told me he asked John Coltrane if Coltrane practiced with the metronome. Coltrane said, “No.”

RG:  [laughs] Well, there it is!

People worry about the metronome, “I’m not gonna move, I’m not gonna move!” because that means you are good. It you move, that means your time is bad. But Miles and them moved all over the place, and it was fucking awesome.

No one ever listens to a tune and says afterwards, “Man, they were at exactly the same tempo the whole time, how hip was that?” Who cares?

It was not just tempo, back in the day they didn’t care about tuning, either! Sharp and flat as hell, but the feeling was right.

Nowadays people care. It probably has something to do with double-edged sword of schooling and the wrong kind of teachers.

Obviously, tuning is good, keeping time is good! If you are ignorant to it, that’s a different thing.

EI:  Again, if you are out of tune but know why you are doing it, it’s a way to Africanize European instruments and harmony. It’s the blues!

RG:  Exactly. No one complains that a blues guitar is out of tune.

EI:  Let me change it up and bust out some names on you. Did you know Kenny Kirkland?

RG:  He was the first guy I met in New York. I went to the New School in 1997. On my first day of school, I was walking down 13th street, got to 5th avenue, and a Lexus pulled up right next to the Citibank that used to be there. Kenny Kirkland got out of the Lexus! My first day of school! I run up to him, “Mr. Kirkland, I’m a big fan,” blah, blah, blah. “Is there any way you teach lessons?”

He gave me his card. He told me he was busy with the Tonight Show and Sting, but that he was gonna be at the Zinc Bar too, and, “Come see me there!”

I knew Mark Whitfield from high school, he was playing at the Zinc, so he got me into the club where I saw Kenny Kirkland play. Then I saw Kenny’s last show at Zinno’s, trio with Charnett Moffett and Tain. He was there a couple of days, and I went the last night, and he talked with me and gave be a bunch of music right off the piano. I still have that music, some of it is in his own handwriting, “Enchance” and some of his tunes.

Funny, I was just talking to Maxine Gordon on this cruise, about one of my favorite movies, Awakenings, which has Dexter Gordon at an old folks’ home playing one song on the piano throughout the whole movie. It’s a beautiful song.

Kenny Kirkland played that song at his Zinno’s show! Afterwards I was like, “Yo, I love that song!” and he gave me the music to that, too.

They found him in his apartment a month later.

EI:  I was at those Zinno gigs as well. They were incredible. Tain was on a little kit, didn’t even have toms. I asked Tain if there were any tapes, he seemed to think there might be.

RG:  I should ask my man who bootlegs everything if he has anything. Those should be found.

EI:  Jason Moran was talking to me about how cool it would be to put out a bootleg series of Kenny Kirkland, maybe especially some of the stuff with Kenny Garrett. Dave Kikoski was telling me about bootlegs of Kirkland playing the blues and rhythm changes with Michael Brecker.

What makes Kenny Kirkland so special?

RG:  I loved his rhythmic concept. He took McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock and meshed them in a way that was really dope. He also had a gospel feel. You couldn’t listen to Kenny Kirkland and not bob your head and start whooping.

EI:  He hit so hard.

RG:  All the time. And he brought so much swag: I liked the way he dressed, I liked his cane and the way he’d put his cane to the side of the piano. He had rings…I loved him as a thing. He was like a pimp, but playing keys.

There’s that Sting DVD, Bring on the Night. That was dope as well. I love seeing cats like that in different settings and playing different music. It makes me appreciate them as musicians even more.

Kenny was like Herbie that way, he fit in all kinds of contexts. He understood all the genres. A chord is not a chord on a chart, each music has its own voicings, its own kind of keyboard sound.

EI:  What about Mulgrew Miller?

RG:  I love Mulgrew Miller. He’s my favorite, or at least in my top five. However, he’s one of those cats that needed to be seen live. If you didn’t see Mulgrew, you didn’t know how great he could be. I had a conversation with him about recording, where he said he hated recording. His recordings don’t reflect his real shit. He was scared, simply terrified of recording.

He was my favorite solo pianist bar none. I saw him play solo piano many times, but there was one time he did a clinic at Berklee. I happened to be in Boston that day. First of all, he took requests! He let them call tunes, then he just fucking murdered the songs: solo piano. It was so beautiful. Incredible.

Mulgrew was so traditional, yet also nasty in that modern way, with his own language, too. He has shit that nobody else plays. He told me he tried to copy Woody Shaw, that was an influence.

EI:  Was Chick Corea also an influence on Mulgrew? Sometime I hear some Chick in there.

RG:  Yes. Mulgrew loved Chick. I had a conversation with Mulgrew where he told me that Chick was one of his heroes.

EI:  What about Richie Beirach? I think he was an influence on Kenny Kirkland, maybe Mulgrew too.

RG:  Maybe, I don’t know. I sort of studied with Richie myself. I wanted to study with him because I heard Joey Calderazzo studied with him. I think I had two lessons and the rest of the time Richie answered the door, coked up to the gills, told me to come back, and shut the door in my face!

EI:  He did that to me too! I guess that was one of the rites of passage in the 90’s.

RG:  He did that to me at least five times. But the two lessons I had were dope.

EI:  When you talk about putting angularity into a burning context, Richie has a place at that table.

RG:  Totally. I saw him with Quest once, it was great.

You know who also has that nasty modern thing is Bill Charlap. He taught me a lot when I studied with him. These days his trio has found his lane, which is pretty, and that’s cool, but Charlap can also be nasty, man! There’s a Jon Gordon album on Criss Cross with Tim Hagans and Billy Drummond where they play “What is Thing Called Love” and “Giant Steps.” Killing record, and Charlap’s playing on it might surprise you.

EI:  I heard you play this minor blues in your trio set two days ago…

RG:  “Just Checking it Out.”

EI:  I loved it. Have you recorded that?

RG:  No, it was just something I wrote for fun. A friend of ours…somebody we both know…I won’t say his name…he told me, “I’m not gay, but I was fucking around with a few dudes, just checking it out.”

The next day I wrote that song at soundcheck.

EI:  [laughs] Well, while I was listening, I was thinking that on a up minor blues I was really kind of expecting a Kirkland-Mulgrew kind of intensity from you, but instead you were playing this leaner, lyrical and limpid kind of thing. The way your trio with Vicente Archer and Damion Reid was playing was very interactive in a subtle way. It made me think of Brad Mehldau, Larry Grenadier, and Jorge Rossy!

RG:  Yeah! That kind of open space. I love it. I love Brad, he’s a huge influence on me. I was at all those Vanguard gigs of that band. He’s probably in my top five as well. A super bad cat, someone who influenced a whole generation. He brought the classical music element in, too, and you didn’t hear that before on such a high level, except for I guess Keith Jarrett. Of course Keith was an influence on Brad as well.

I was the only one who saw Brad get into a little fight with Cecil Taylor at the Vanguard. He remembers it. When I told him he said, “You were there?!”

It was back in the little passage by the bathroom. Brad laid into Cecil because he heard that Cecil called Brad’s girlfriend a prostitute. Cecil was drunk. You know how Cecil is. Those two motherfuckers had words, and I was the only witness. That was so awesome. So good.

EI:  One the highlights for me recently was getting to see you and Jason Moran play duo.

RG:  Right, at the Steinway event.

EI:  Tell me something about Jason and Houston and all that.

RG:  Funny thing is, Jason sounded just like Kenny Kirkland in high school. At our high school, the top combo made records every year. Jason was gone by the time I got there, but I heard his record. Doctor Bob Morgan gave me the tape of Jason playing McCoy Tyner’s “Inner Glimpse” and Kenny Kirkland’s “Dienda.” He sounded right in there playing like Kirkland. That was the style.

Which is one reason I have so much respect for Jason. He knows the whole lineage of jazz piano.

There are a lot of guys that dwell in that fine arts or “go get the grant” world who can’t really play. They found a crack in the door and get in there but I don’t have a whole lot of respect for them.

I have respect for Cecil Taylor, I get what he’s doing and it’s awesome, but some of that shit I hear and I’m like, “Whatever.”

Jason dwells in that world too but the fact that he came up the way he came up proves he’s not skating, he’s doing exactly what he wants to do.

You know, I heard Brad sound exactly like Wynton Kelly like on those early Peter Bernstein albums.. Then he moved into his own thing, just like Jason has moved into his own thing as well.

Jason has his own voice, and his band has his own voice as well. Individually, the members of the Bandwagon are so dope, because they don’t sound like anybody else to begin with, and together it’s just out of sight. Nasheet is Nasheet, and you know damn well Taurus don’t play like nobody! He’s crazy!

But at the same time I heard Taurus lay it down with The Roots or play hip-hop shit and it is super dope as well.

Jason is also a very giving person. He’s never threatened by young cats. Lot of older cats can be weird, but Jason is supportive.

I’m the same way, I try to help the next cats coming up any way I can. Did you hear James Francies?

EI:  Yeah, I heard him last night! Sounded great!

RG:  Yeah, he’s from my high school, I got him on Fallon with the Roots and some other stuff. He’s been playing with Tain, too.

EI:  He’s dealing! His fast runs sound like Tatum. Really a bright glow to his touch.

RG: It feels good to help someone else, and Jason has done a lot of that, too.

EI:  When I heard you and Jason play together, it helped show me what a great accompanist you are, because you hooked up his avant-garde concept perfectly. I mean, that’s a long way from Bilal, but you are totally comfortable in either situation. Kudos!

RG:  Well, I love not knowing how everything is going to play out sometimes too. With Jason we really explore.

EI:  I gotta say, the more you do of that the more I’m down! But that’s like me with Herbie too. Really all I want — and I know this is strictly my opinion — is for Herbie Hancock to play “Just Friends” and “It Could Happen to You” with Buster Williams or Ron Carter and Billy Hart or Al Foster.

RG:  Oh man. Yeah, there are bootlegs of that trio with Buster and Al that are amazing. But they didn’t make a record, did they?

EI:  No, which is too bad, especially since — unlike what you say about Mulgrew — Herbie can really turn it on in a studio situation. Right here on the cruise ship, I heard Jaco’s “Liberty City” and man does Herbie show up and blaze away. Probably just a single take.

RG:  No doubt.

EI:  Ok, Robert, well I know you need to get off this damn boat and go to the Grammys.

RG:  Catch you next time!

Robert Glasper website.