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REFLECT + RESPOND = NOW

June 15 2018

In an era when every headline carries some new horror or fresh worry, we need music that can clap back with immediacy, skill, and heart. We need a band so at home in its skin that it can play without ego and lead with love—artists whose very existence attests to resilience and hope. We need R+R=NOW, a supergroup assembled by Robert Glasper but functionally egalitarian, in no small part because its members are visionary players, composers, and producers on their own: Glasper on keys, Terrace Martin on synthesizer and vocoder, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah on trumpet, Derrick Hodge on bass, Taylor McFerrin on synth and beatbox, and newcomer Justin Tyson on drums. You could try to count up the GRAMMYs between them but you'd be missing the point. This genre-mashing outfit moves as one and, as their name reveals, with great purpose.

“R+R stands for ‘Reflect’ and ‘Respond’,” says Glasper. The idea came to him via Nina Simone while he was coproducing Nina Revisited, a companion album to the 2015 film What Happened, Miss Simone? Facing backlash for her politics, Simone was asked, more or less, why she didn't just shut up and sing. Her answer: “an artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.” Glasper adds: “When you reflect what's going on in your time and respond to that, you can't not be relevant. So ‘R’ plus ‘R’ equals ‘NOW’.”

In that spirit, the debut album by R+R=NOW isn't some wonky thesis on the state of the nation. It's a raw document titled Collagically Speaking that seamlessly adheres neo-soul to future-funk, West Coast jazz of the moment to astral electronica, instrumental hip-hop to musique concrète, avant-garde to classical—these are single-take songs, written live in the room, that go wherever this formidable crew's mood goes. Guest voices get caught in that mix as well: actors Omari Hardwick (Power) and Terry Crews (Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Expendables); actress Amanda Seales (Insecure); MCs Stalley and yasiin bey (f.k.a. Mos Def); and singers Amber Navran (of Moonchild) and Goapele. The themes that bind it all together are both spoken and inferred: romantic love, universal love, systemic bigotry, the women's movement, quiet power, wild creativity, personal loss and growth.

Nina Simone was asked, more or less, why she didn't just shut up and sing. Her answer: “an artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.”

“Everyone in this band is a six-foot-tall black guy who didn't come from an affluent background,” says Scott. “In order for us all to make it into that room together, we've had to go through some hell, fight for some things, build up a lot of armor, and do a lot ourselves to forge our realities, to become who we are. We're all very aware of that, so anytime we get together, it's a celebration.”

The origin of the group came in 2017 when Glasper was asked to put together an all-star line-up for a SXSW show at Empire Control Room. With his history—producing for everyone from Common to Herbie Hancock to Seun Kuti, reinterpreting Miles Davis and Simone, exploding jazz boundaries with his Black Radio series—the Houston-born auteur could be choosy. Martin, of L.A., was best-known as a chief architect of Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly. NOLA native Scott turned heads with his socially charged 2017 Centennial trilogy, a comprehensive celebration of Africa's sonic diaspora. Philly's Hodge has scored for Spike Lee and music-directed for Maxwell. McFerrin, born in Brooklyn, is Bobby McFerrin's oldest son and rolls with Flying Lotus' Brainfeeder camp. Grand Rapids native Tyson plays with Esperanza Spalding. Their diverse wealth of experience melded with profound ease.

“There was no rehearsal and no plan. Just a quick soundcheck,” says Glasper of R+R=NOW's Austin debut. And yet, “We were vibing, listening to each other, and coming up with stuff on the spot that was so dope, when it was time to figure out what my next album for Blue Note would be, I was like, ‘We should do this.’ I needed to take that same band and method to the studio.”

So they came together for four days in Hollywood's Henson Recording Studio, setting aside any expectation of what would come next. Fittingly, it was NBA All-Star Weekend, but despite being a veritable dream team themselves, Martin says, “everybody understood that the biggest ego in the room was the music. In that type of project, with that type of band, it's easy for everyone to try and be jazz Olympic hero. The fact that we respected the air between us is something I think people will feel and see as an example: to display patience, to love each other, to move as one.”

That fellowship is felt throughout Collagically Speaking. It's in the fluidly shifting tempos of the 10-minute epic “Resting Warrior,” which contrasts skittering drums and eerie effects with regal horns and cool keys. And in the woozy soul of “Colors in the Dark,” where Martin's robo-coo floats like a hallucination over a lush scene that crests in a sudden burst from Tyson. Or in the zero-gravity atmosphere of “Respond,” which spins out amid echoes of crying instruments, tethered to Earth only by Hodge's warm bass. Scott says a song would “sprout off one idea and go through eight iterations in a couple minutes.” But some cover so much territory they split into two, like “Awake to You,” a joyful blend of quiet storm and boom-bap that morphs into the halftime, decidedly blue and trippy “By Design.” At the end, you can hear Glasper's surprise at where the song went.

“I love the first take because it's the most honest take,” says Glasper. “There's something about the spirit of it. I don't record until I'm ready and I don't do extra takes just to do it—you burn out. We'd chill, watch some basketball, have some drinks, and hit record when the vibe was right.”

They weren't cloistered either. Don Cheadle dropped in along with Crews—Glasper captured a conversation with the latter about inspiration that he patched into the gorgeously textured “The Night in Question.” And the band went out to a party thrown by Dave Chappelle where they got onstage, jammed with Usher and Common, and ran into a couple of friends that they invited to the studio: Stalley, who spits over the snapping, groove-heavy “Reflect Reprise”; and Goapele, who adds her voice to the upbeat opener, “Change of Tone.” Hardwick came direct from the set of Power to add his lovelorn poem to “Needed You Still” while Martin got his Roger Troutman on. It was all organic—realizing that an important piece was missing from the collage, Glasper called on Seales to deliver a piece about true, unvarnished womanhood over the spare “HER=NOW.”

“The sound, the unplanned guests, the spontaneity of the whole thing, and all of us putting in so many beautiful colors to make one big beautiful thing... The album is a record of that weekend, of that rare moment in time,” says Glasper. “I always say that the universe is my co-producer.”

A week later, with Collagically Speaking wrapped, he and Hodge were in Europe backing yasiin bey at a couple of gigs when it dawned on him to ask the hip-hop legend to define love. His off-the-cuff answer was the perfect end cap to the project and it's the last sound you'll hear on the album as the airy, Navran-blessed “Been on My Mind” fades from view. If you're wondering why a simple statement about love is R+R=NOW's parting statement in a time that's as divisive, hateful, and pained as ours often seems to be, well, Martin explains it best: “Every day I'm enraged by what I see, hear, and read about. We could've made something angry, but you'll never beat hate with hate. I stay on the path to love because it's the only thing I can use to destroy the darkness.”