On first listen, Canvas, the major label debut from 27-year-old pianist Robert Glasper sounds decidedly mainstream. However, Glasper comes informed by the broad range of influences that a jazz musician of his generation inevitably does, with deep jazz roots and the sometimes subconscious influence of having grown up also listening to hip hop, R&B and alternative rock.
The second time around, the true nature of the music begins to reveal itself, not as much aurally as sensually. The bass is warmer, phatter, more sanguine, the drums throb, and the piano dances freestyling swing moods. "I mean, obviously it's jazz, but I try to bring it all. I have to go into it because I feel it,” says Glasper. "I express myself through my music. You can hear who I am through my music."
When summarizing Canvas two words come to mind: immediacy and serendipity. On the former descriptive, Glasper explains, "A week before the recording, we did the Regatta Bar in Boston, then we did a weekend at Small's in New York two days before. So we got the music in us; we just walked in the studio and hit. Everything was one or two takes.”
And serendipity? "I don't like overly arranged themes,” says the pianist, “because there's no room to actually play. I get sick of my own music if I know how it's going to end, how I'm going to play it. So when I give music to the band, I don’t dictate it so much, so I can be surprised too. Every time we play one of my tunes, I want to walk away from that and go 'Whew!’"
Canvas puts forth Glasper as a new voice to be reckoned with threefold: as a pianist, as a composer, and as one third of a trio that Ben Ratliff of The New York Times has said “deserves comparison with the best of the newer piano trios, those led by Jason Moran, Bill Charlap and Brad Mehldau.” Ratliff went on: “his group has its own crisp, skittering cooperation, with hip hop in its bounce.”
As a pianist, Glasper owns a melodic sense that can mesmerize you and a technique that can scare you, but thankfully he also possesses the innate sense to know exactly which is needed at a given moment. He’s absorbed all the usual influences (Tyner, Hancock, Corea, Jarrett) and yet he exhibits a sound that’s undeniably Glasper, his delicate touch and harmonic sense as recognizable as any of the aforementioned masters.
As a composer, a facet of Glasper’s musicianship that there’s no getting around on Canvas with nine of the ten compositions his own (the sole exception being Herbie Hancock’s “Riot” performed as a tempo-and-feel-shifting quartet outing with tenor saxophonist Mark Turner), he demonstrates a flair for the deceptively simplistic. Lovely melodies and chord structures that wind and repeat, flowing so seamlessly from one phrase to the next that it’s easy to lose track of where they begin and end (“Portrait of an Angel” and “Chant,” the latter of which features the vocal stylings of Bilal). Odd and mixed meters that sound so natural that the casual listener would never suspect that the band is swingin’ in seven (“Jelly’s Da Beener”) or that they’ve moved from 5/4 to 5/8 and back again (“Canvas,” which also features another of Turner’s remarkable solo turns).
On the gorgeous album-closer, “I Remember,” a dedication to his mother, Glasper actually incorporates a recording of her singing that melts into the piano intro, and the tune ends with Bilal’s vocals soaring over a wistful Glasper improvisation.
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Robert Glasper was raised in Houston, Texas. His mother was his first and strongest musical influence. Mrs. Glasper not only played piano and sang gospel music in the family's church, she led a band that worked the city's jazz and blues club circuit as well. By the age of twelve, young Robert was playing piano in that church. "Gospel music is built on emotion and spirituality; you go to church and leave crying," he smiles. "It definitely just gave me that sensitivity and knowing how to reach people and knowing how to be in tune with your feelings and the emotion of the music. My thing is, it helps me relate to the audience 'cause they're gonna give you what you give them. When you bring the crowd into your world, you can do anything you want."
By the time he reached adolescence, Robert knew his destiny was to be a jazz musician. He was accepted to the Houston's famed High School for the Performing Arts ("Jason Moran went there before me."). Post-graduation, Glasper enrolled at New School University in Manhattan. Soon after arrival, he hooked up with future bandmember Reid and vocalist Bilal, an old schoolmate. As an undergrad, Glasper gigged with Christian McBride, Russell Malone and Kenny Garrett. Professional life after the New School was even sweeter: stints with Nicholas Payton, Roy Hargrove, Terence Blanchard, Carmen Lundy, and Carly Simon.
The Bilal connection brought the pianist back to hip-hop. Glasper's contributions to Bilal's debut and subsequent tour brought him to the attention of Q-Tip (A Tribe Called Quest). "Tip would come hang out at my shows, and one day he called me and said, ‘I'm doing this tour and I need you to play keys. Can you do it?’” He's also since played with Mos Def, and is featured prominently on Bilal's forthcoming sophomore release.
In 2003, Glasper's first album Mood was released on indie label Fresh Sound New Talent, and two years later, Blue Note came calling. At Blue Note, Glasper joins a jazz piano legacy that stretches back to 1939, beginning with Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis, and continuing through Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, Andrew Hill, Cecil Taylor, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Jacky Terrasson, Jason Moran and Bill Charlap. Undaunted, Glasper reflects, “I’m just happy to be a part of the Blue Note family and its rich history.”