Not Just Jazz: Robert Glasper and Esperanza Spalding

Esperanza Spalding

Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters is arguably the best-selling jazz album of all time and its impact on the world of music is unmistakable. Get four people who really know how to play their instruments together and I’ll bet money that they can spit out at least a functional version of “Chameleon” from memory. Headhunters has achieved widespread recognition and affection primarily through its single most defining quality: it’s a funk record. Much like its early-70’s brethren, Jimmy Smith’s Root Down and Roy Ayers’ Ubiquity, Headhunters took the Bitches Brew ball and ran with it, straight into the arms of the public fascinated with the popular black music of the time: funk and disco.

A similar revolution is afoot today in the form of Robert Glasper‘s Black Radio and Esperanza Spalding‘s Radio Music Society. Both records represent the next step in the development of each of these young and talented artists, but their significance to the legacy of Headhunters is that by embracing hip-hop and R&B in an authentic and believable manner, they should enjoy an audience beyond the Downbeat set.

Robert Glasper (feat. Mos Def), Black Radio

Black Radio comes out first, on February 28th, and that works well for everyone. For jazz fans, it’s immediately recognizable in the vein of recent work by Vijay Iyer and The Bad Plus, insofar as it’s a jazz piano record that takes on a number of contemporary pop compositions and reworks them into something that rests defiantly between jazz and pop. For hip-hop fans, already conditioned to keep an eye on the underground again after a year of stellar releases from the “backpack” crew, this will be that new sh*t that they’ll be the “first” ones hip to. For Glasper, it gives him a couple of weeks head start on Spalding’s more heavily hyped release (out March 20) to show that while music isn’t a game of winners and losers, his is the superior confirmation of the modernity of jazz. Not that Spalding’s record isn’t stellar, but Glasper’s marks a musical achievement slightly more significant.

Robert Glasper (feat. Eryka Badu), Afro Blue

Glasper has said this album can’t be pigeonholed and he’s not entirely wrong. Black Radio is clearly a jazz record, but if you played the tracks “Black Radio” or “Always Shine” for a hiphop head, they’d easily assume they were off some as-yet unreleased Okayplayer compilation. Similarly, “Afro Blue” and “Consequence of Jealousy” could have been leaked from Erykah Badu and Meshell Ndegeocello’s respective recent studio sessions. The significance of this, much like the relevance of Headhunters in the context of funk, is that Glasper manages to create jazz that is indistinguishable from genres that are more en vogue at the moment. The single largest obstacle to jazz’s relevance in the modern musical landscape is the word itself, “jazz”. Much like the terms “opera” and “rap” can elicit negative reactions in and of themselves, jazz has an image problem compounded by years of de-evolution at the hands of Wynton Marsalis and his ilk. By consciously sidestepping the jazz label, Glasper gives not only himself, but everyone of a similar mindset a step up in getting the “average listener” to give them a shot.

Robert Glasper

Speaking of similar mindsets, we have Radio Music Society. I have to admit having a slightly different perspective on the work of Ms. Spalding, as I was studying jazz and enjoying my first forays in to the world of professional music in Portland, OR at the same time that she was first starting to make waves as a musician. I’ve had the opportunity to watch her evolution from “that Esperanza kid who kills on the bass” to Grammy-winning superstar. Having seen her perform over 10 years ago primarily in underground hip-hop groups, I see the idea of her incorporating contemporary African-American styles as more of a welcome return than a new evolution. That said, the time spent in the interim exploring her abilities as a jazz musician definitely inform her latest work, and end up painting her album as a more strictly “jazz” album than Black Radio. Which is fine, especially since Black Radio comes out first, and Spalding has the advantage of institutional recognition on her side. What that means in “real world” terms is that Radio Music Society should actually sell better than Black Radio. Black Radio is a harder, darker record. It has a much broader appeal than most jazz, but I imagine fewer adults and consistently-happy people will buy it than Spalding’s record.

Esperanza Spalding, I Can’t Help It

While Glasper has crafted a future rare-groove classic, Spalding has produced something more along the lines of the phenomenon of Norah Jones’ breakthrough debut. I can easily see parents listening to Radio Music Society in their rare moments away from their children, or downtown Manhattan restaurants using it for ambiance. And this is in no way to suggest that Radio Music Society more easily qualifies as easy listening, but rather to illustrate its subversive qualities.

Glasper can essentially transform himself in to a “hip-hop musician,” but Spalding has a harder time masking her jazz roots. Her sense of harmony is more challenging than Glasper’s, doubtlessly owing to her free jazz explorations on her prior album Chamber Music Society, and while Glasper surrounds himself with contemporary R&B and hip-hop voices, Spalding primarily employs her own immense vocal talents, which inevitably betray her training in and familiarity with jazz phrasing and inflection. But unlike Glasper’s Miles-esque approach to challenging the listener, Spalding tempers all the “jazz noises” that might turn off many listeners with a gentleness and uplifting spirit that draws the listener’s attention away from the fact that he’s being bombarded with tritone substitution and blue notes. Radio Music Society is a feel-good album in the spirit of Spalding’s earlier works, but achieves a greater social impact by dressing up her advanced musical concepts with production by the likes of Q-Tip and an absolutely killing cover of Michael Jackson’s “I Can’t Help It,” possibly the best take on the King of Pop since his untimely demise.

Esperanza Spalding, Crowned and Kissed

Overall, both records are quite simply great. The playing is outstanding, particularly Spalding’s fretless electric work and Glasper drummer Chris Dave’s IDM-by-way-of-Church insanity. Both Glasper and Spalding can likely look forward to even greater exposure to the masses than they already enjoy. The hope they represent –that sophisticated music written and performed by accomplished musicians might once again be relevant to a wide contemporary audience –makes them both must-have albums.

Wayan Zoey plays drums and bass with and for a number of other people. He also plays guitar, but only when alone and listening to Phish. This is his first piece for Frontier Psychiatrist. 

You might also like to check out...