Following the breakthrough commercial and critical success of his two GRAMMY-winning R&B-oriented Black Radio albums, Robert Glasper returns to his acoustic jazz roots with Covered (The Robert Glasper Trio recorded live at Capitol Studios). The album reunites Glasper with bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Damion Reid, reforming the trio that created his first two Blue Notes releases, Canvas (2005) and In My Element (2007).
Covered, which was recorded before an intimate gathering of invited guests in Capitol Records’ historic Studio A, was designed to bring Glasper’s newfound Black Radio fan base along as he returned to the jazz fold. The set list features songs by hip-hop and R&B stars like Kendrick Lamar, Musiq Soulchild, John Legend, and Bilal alongside the jazz standard “Stella By Starlight.” Displaying his trademark eclecticism, Glasper also includes tunes by Radiohead and Joni Mitchell, along with a stirring collaboration with legendary singer/activist Harry Belafonte. The Glasper originals on the album include a re-working of “I Don’t Even Care” which was a bonus track on Black Radio 2 featuring Macy Gray and Jean Grae.
“I missed the piano,” Glasper says simply, explaining his return to the acoustic piano trio. For the past five years, he’s focused almost exclusively on keyboards while recording and touring with his Experiment band. Those efforts earned him unprecedented success, with both volumes of Black Radio winning GRAMMY Awards in R&B categories and topping Billboard’s Jazz and R&B/Hip-Hop charts, placing him in the company of pop music superstars like Drake, Rihanna, and Justin Timberlake. So when it came time to embrace the piano trio once again, he decided to mix flavors old and new, reconvening with Archer and Reid for the first time since 2007 while continuing to explore his hip-hop and R&B influences.
“I didn’t want to go back to trio and just play a bunch of standards or original jazz compositions, because then I would lose the big fan base I just built from mainstream R&B,” Glasper explains. “So I decided on a happy medium, returning to the piano trio but doing cover songs, which is something that I’ve never done before. It’s something that can feed the appetites of both my R&B/hip-hop audience and my jazz audience at the same time.”
While his heightened profile following Black Radio could have afforded Glasper his choice of collaborators for his follow-up project, the pianist was determined to work again with his original trio. “I always want to have an original sound,” he explains. “I’ve never been a big fan of all-star albums. They’re kind of like having five LeBron James’ on a team - you don't win like that. The guys in my acoustic trio are my favorite musicians on their instruments. And musically it felt great.”
One notable exception to Glasper’s “all-star band” rule was Our Point of View, the supergroup assembled to celebrate Blue Note’s 75th anniversary in the Fall of 2014. The band featured trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, saxophonist Marcus Strickland, guitarist Lionel Loueke, bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Kendrick Scott along with Glasper, and the experience helped to whet the pianist’s appetite for a return to acoustic jazz. “Now, that’s an all-star band where everybody has a great game all around. The great thing about that band is that they’re all the most considerate and selfless musicians, which makes for the best music because people leave room and space for things to happen. They’re all grade ‘A’ musicians and we have a great chemistry together. And it was great to get back to playing acoustic piano.”
The decision to record Covered live was simply another case of unexplored territory, another challenge Glasper wanted to face. “I never like to do the same album twice,” he says. “When I put an album out, I want it to be a different experience from the last one.”
For the setting, he chose Capitol Records’ prestigious Studio A in Hollywood, California, a room that has hosted landmark recording sessions by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Nancy Wilson to The Beach Boys to The Beastie Boys. It’s also the home of Nat King Cole’s New York Steinway “B” piano and was the setting for Cannonball Adderley’s Mercy, Mercy, Mercy! live album, a key inspiration for Glasper’s decision. “There’s magic in that room,” Glasper says. “You can go on and on and on about the amazing people who recorded there, and the sound in that room is famous.”
The choice of recording in a studio rather than a nightclub leads not only to improved sound quality but also to a looser, more intimate feeling, as the trio is performing for a select group of friends and fans. That vibe, as well as Glasper’s trademark sense of humor, is evident in the playful Glasper original “In Case You Forgot,” which showcases the trio’s abilities while also allowing for a few unexpected musical quotations along the lines of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” and Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me”; and in Glasper’s off-the-cuff spoken introductions.
On the opposite end of the emotional spectrum are the album’s two closing tracks, which directly confront social and political realities in modern America. “Got Over” sets to music an autobiographical monologue by Harry Belafonte, who Glasper met while working with the singer/activist’s Sankofa organization, which rallies artists and performers to use their platforms to speak out on issues of social justice. “I told him just to talk about his life and what he did to overcome things,” Glasper says, “and it was mind-blowing. A lot of people look at themselves in the mirror and feel like if they come from nothing they’ll just be nothing. A lot of our problems as African-Americans come from that lack of self-love and thinking you’re not going to be able to overcome your situation.”
Another artist that contradicts that narrative is Kendrick Lamar, who rose out of Compton, California to find success in hip-hop. Glasper is featured on several songs on Lamar’s latest album, To Pimp a Butterfly, and closes Covered with a moving rendition of Lamar’s “I’m Dying of Thirst.” Glasper’s version features his six-year-old son Riley and his friends reciting the names of African-American victims of police shootings, including Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. “I thought I had to do something with my art to reflect what’s going on,” Glasper says. “I look at things totally differently now that I’m a father. These kids could grow up to be those same people who get shot by the police. The world is dying of thirst, dying for change, for people to have love in their hearts. And until the world gets that thirst quenched, this isn’t going to stop.”
In addition to recording Covered, Glasper has been busy with a wide variety of musical pursuits. He recently finished composing and recording the score for Miles Ahead, actor/director Don Cheadle’s upcoming film about Miles Davis. For a separate project, Glasper was also given unique access to Davis’ Columbia Records vaults, from which he’s assembling a remix album crafting new music from the legendary trumpeter’s recordings, rehearsals and outtakes, and he has produced a new tribute album to Nina Simone in conjunction with an upcoming documentary about the singer. He’s also been named an official Steinway artist, joining a select group of world-class pianists who have chosen to perform exclusively on the family of Steinway-designed pianos.