Listen Up! Robert Glasper on Kendrick Lamar and the (Non) Definition of Jazz

Images by Manuela Insixiengmay

We’re big Robert Glasper fans here at Nordstrom, Glasper being the Grammy-winning musician doing the most–the most, we tell you–to keep the sound of jazz piano fresh, relevant and connected to the youth.

He’s all over the rap album of the year, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. And further indicating his breadth, Glasper’s upcoming album on Blue Note Records, Covered, includes live versions of songs by Miles Davis, Jhené Aiko and Radiohead.

Glasper is not Kanye-famous, though Yeezy has joined Glasper on stage to kick some freestyle raps. Nor is he trying to be. We caught up with him while the 37-year-old artist was taking the biggest year in his career in stride, touring, being excellent.

Keep scrolling to read Glasper’s thoughts on where an uninitiated person should start with Miles’ albums, the courageousness of Kendrick Lamar, his top five emcees–and listen to him extemporaneously rap Tupac’s verse from Digital Underground’s “All Around the World.”

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Nordstrom blogs: What’s the last book you read?

Robert Glasper: The last whole book I read? Or just book I’ve been kinda reading? These days I can’t read whole books. The last book I dove into was “Walk Tall” about Cannonball Adderley, with a foreword by Quincy Jones.

Seattle native.

Oh yeah? I didn’t know that.

He has a building named after him at Garfield High School. Kind of a legendary jazz program at Garfield.

Oh yeah, OK, I know a few people who went there. Aaron Parks, right? I use to know all the cats from high schools like that, because I went to a specialty high school in Houston, a school for the performing arts. So we all knew each other from competitions, battles.

Funny how high school jazz bands to pro musicians is like college basketball to pro players.

It totally is!

Which TV shows are you into right now?

My show right now is House of Cards. It was Breaking Bad before. I’m on Better Call Saul, now. My favorite movie is White Men Can’t Jump. I watch it all the time. I watched it last night. I fall asleep to it.

To what degree are you taking it on yourself to make jazz relevant and/or interesting to young people?

I mean, I’m just doing me. So the way I’m taking it on myself, is I ignore the constraint that the jazz world wants to put on you. As far as what’s jazz and what’s not jazz. You know, if you mix it with this, it’s not jazz anymore.

Glasper with Q-Tip

Glasper with Kanye West

Who puts those constraints on jazz?

People. Players. Critics. Teachers. A lot of people. It’s always the people who have reached their plateau. Who have hit their ceiling. So they try to stagnate the music, because it props them up. But the people who count don’t say that. Herbie don’t say that. Miles didn’t say that. Stevie doesn’t say that. So I could care less what anyone else says.

Do you have a definition for jazz?

No. It’s corny when anyone tries. Because there’s always something to argue. I know it when I hear it. It’s actually subjective.

Can we talk about your practice regimen at ten-year intervals? How do you practice now, versus at 27, at 17, and how did you practice piano at 7 years old?

Wasn’t playing piano ‘til I was 11. Seventeen, I practiced really hard, every day. Twenty-seven, I was practicing here and there. I had a piano at my house. I used to play for hours, but playing and practicing are two different things. When you practice something, you’re trying to get familiar with something that’s hard. You sound bad when you practice. Which can be a problem at colleges when people are practicing within earshot of each other. People don’t want to sound bad in front of each other.

Are you good at knowing what you need to practice?

I used to be. I used to have a notebook. I would go to jam sessions and write something I needed to work on. Chord changes. A progression. Something that was hard for my fingers to reach.

How did you select the artists whose music you interpreted on Covered?

All on my iPod. I wanted to do stuff that was in my iPod, and not the same genre. Everybody agreed to give me the rights to cover their songs except Prince. I recorded “Sign ‘O’ the Times.” But it’s all stuff I enjoy from different parts of my vocabulary. Joni Mitchell, Radiohead, Bilal, Musiq Soulchild.

What moved you to cover Kendrick Lamar’s “I’m Dying of Thirst”? Can you explain your version of the song, and what your thought process was?

I love things that have a mantra or repetitiveness to it, and that song has that. And dying of thirst can mean so many different things. The world could be dying of thirst and it needs to be fed water. It could be referring to a baptism. I took that concept and decided to make it a tribute. So I had my son and his friends say the names of 25 people who were killed by police brutality. Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown…. My son is six, his friends are between four and eight.

Which song did do you feel you enhanced the most with your playing on To Pimp a Butterfly?

Probably “Complexion,” because–do you know that song?–there’s a part when it’s just piano, and then the beat fades in and Rapsody comes in starts rapping. I was supposed to stop playing at that point, in the studio. But I just kept going, kinda kept changing my voicings, and I ended up playing by myself for another two, three minutes. Just because I felt like doing that. When I got out of the booth, Kendrick’s like, Yo, that was dope–I’m going to put some drums on it and rap over it! And then when I heard it, he did put some drums on it, but he put Rapsody on it.

Do you believe in classic albums–and do you think that’s one?

Totally. And yes. There’s nothing in hip-hop that sounds like that.

Who is your favorite singer?

Bilal. He should have such a big audience. He can sing anything. We lived together for years. I was his music director. It sucks that he’s not getting what some people get. You never see him on TV.

You see him in back of Kendrick, maybe.

Yeah, now. Thank god for Kendrick. Kendrick loves Bilal. That’s, like, his favorite artist. None of the guests on the Kendrick album are trendy. Because Kendrick has courage to not be trendy and do what he wanted to do. Which also brings to the light, a bunch of great people. Especially in black music, you’re only allowed to have, like, a few famous people at the same time. It really sucks. You get Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna and Chris Brown. So Kendrick said I’m not gonna get Minaj, I’m going to get Rapsody. I’m not gonna get Rihanna to sing this hook, I’m gonna get Lalah Hathaway. I’m not gonna get Chris Brown, I’m gonna get Bilal. I’m gonna get Robert. I’m gonna get Thundercat. Everybody loves the album and it’s giving shine to a lot of people. Rappers have power to bring people up.

In what way has J. Dilla influenced your piano playing?

Because of the way he chopped pianos and made it feel. He made it feel a certain way, like how notes were laid down. He made it sound like laying down a scarf. Fluid. He’s the only producer I know of where instrumentalists try and copy his sound.

You’re scoring Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis movie. For a person who’s never heard Miles Davis’ music, where would you recommend they start?

That’s really hard. It depends on the person and what they already like. If they’ve never listened to any jazz deeply, I’d say On the Corner. Because it’s so funky. And it’s head-nodding. Because jazz has a feel that no other music has, swinging, and if you don’t listen to jazz that could be weird for you. But this has the same head-nod as if you were listening to James Brown.

Have you seen Chris Rock’s Top 5? Who’s in your top five?

Yes. Rappers? Of all time? Or my top five? I’ll do my top five. Mos Def. I love Mos. I love Biggie. I love Buster. Rhythmically, no one’s every done what Busta Rhymes has done. And I don’t mean rapping fast. I mean his phrasing. He’s like a trumpet player. Eminem. And Humpty Hump. Not Shock G, only when he’s Humpty Hump. Because he brought comedy to rap. He brought character and comedy, and at the same time he was actually good. Humpty Hump is a real person to me. He doesn’t get enough props. And he gave people Tupac’s first verse, on “All Around the World”:

–Andrew Matson

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