Elegy for Fort Greene

Photo: Matt Hoyle

While some jazz labels invest heavily in the remix phenomenon, pumping up the beats and turbocharging the tempo to make dance music for the coffee-bar crowd (as if Billie Holiday’s music needs more impact), piano trios, jazz’s most pristine and discreet setting, have quietly taken over the music. Top practitioners like Brad Mehldau, Jason Moran, and the Bad Plus sell out midsize rock venues these days, and the next wave is arriving quickly, led by 28-year-old Texas native Robert Glasper. His third and latest album, In My Element, is the first significant jazz disc of the year; the music is direct, forceful, inventive, and accessible without pandering.

It’s easy to hear why the best jazz today comes in threes. Beyond the simple advantage of low overhead, the sparseness of the instrumentation allows the harder rhythms of pop to shine while still being capable of the complex sonic texture necessary to pull off the odd Radiohead cover. Mehldau popularized the jazz-guy-does-Radiohead, offering up a pensive, wistful rendition of “Exit Music (For a Film)”; Glasper does his own inspired riff on the concept on In My Element.

For Glasper, the trio enables him to heighten the drama and sense of surprise in his playing. With a bare minimum of bandmates, he has total freedom. “It’s an intimate setting,” he explains over lunch on Park Avenue South. “There aren’t too many people in the band to communicate with, and my guys [bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Damion Reid] know the direction I’m going without me having to speak it.”

In My Element showcases the degree to which Glasper has developed and refined his pop sensibility. Crossing music boundaries comes naturally to him, the way it does to many young jazz musicians these days. When Branford Marsalis began gigging with the Grateful Dead in the late eighties, purists bugged out. At the time, jazz was vying for highbrow status, for inclusion in the performing-arts institutions and academies. Now that it’s succeeded, Glasper and his contemporaries don’t have the snobs on their backs, or at least not as many of them. Kitsch remains a danger, though. Glasper escapes it because he unfailingly gets the feeling right. His music is guided by an elegant evocation of the emotion in the song—then his formidable chops muscle into the picture.

Glasper comes from Houston, where he was mentored by his late mother, a star singer and pianist on the local blues and gospel scene. He took up the piano somewhat late, in adolescence. “I was totally into sports until I was 12, then I went to an all-black junior high school and discovered that I wasn’t as good as I thought I was,” he says with a laugh. Following in Moran’s footsteps, he attended the Houston High School for the Performing Arts, then came east to the New School. Before long, Glasper was out on the road with jazzers like Kenny Garrett and Roy Hargrove and even did time in the touring bands of Mos Def and Q-Tip. These hip-hop gigs were lucrative for a young pianist, even if he had to hew to a very tight style. “Playing in a hip-hop setting requires more discipline than playing jazz,” he says while rocking back and forth as if playing a church organ. “You have to learn how to duplicate that sample, playing the exact same thing over and over again with the same inflection.”

Glasper’s hookup to the scene came via a classmate at the New School, Bilal, a great but underappreciated singer who arrived about five years too late to get on the Maxwell/Lauryn Hill/Erykah Badu soul train. Glasper’s knowledge of hip-hop (as a teenager, he was a huge fan of A Tribe Called Quest’s early-nineties classics) helped him fall right in with the crowd. “A lot of hip-hop cats are jazz heads on the low,” he says. He shows his hip-hop fluency on In My Element by dedicating a track to late hip-hop genius J Dilla (nicely capturing Dilla’s gift for blending mood and melody within slamming beats), and on other tracks, you can hear rap’s rhythmic edge, gently abstracted both in Reid’s drumming and in Glasper’s own staccato figures. “I bring some of the hip-hop influence to my playing,” he says. “Sometimes less is more. A lot of guys my age don’t know that.”

The track on the album that will likely garner the most attention is Glasper’s mash-up of Herbie Hancock’s classic “Maiden Voyage” with Radiohead’s “Everything in Its Right Place.” The idea came to Glasper while rehearsing one afternoon. It’s no shotgun marriage; the tunes blend beautifully, and ardent jazz fans will also recognize Duke Ellington’s “Fleurette Africaine” wafting gracefully into the mix. Glasper has been incorporating sly acoustic samples like this in his work since his first indie release, Mood, three years ago, and while it might seem like a very of-the-moment technique, it goes back at least as far as Louis Armstrong. It’s a good measure of Glasper’s gift for balancing tradition and innovation.

All jazz has to wrestle with history, but Glasper’s doesn’t hark back to gilded ballrooms or smoky hipster clubs of 50 years ago. Instead, you can hear a different scene reflected in his music: the late nineties, when Fort Greene and Clinton Hill were blowing up. The local clubs and cafés moved easily from deep house and trip-hop to down-tempo jazz and blues while maintaining a base in neo-soul. “That was a very important time for me,” he says. “I had a weekly gig where I got to try out a lot of new songs and sharpen the art of the trio.” That scene is largely gone, a victim of fickle trends and rising real-estate values, but it lives on in Glasper’s fluid, engaging music.

Glasper attended the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Houston, the same school that not only produced pianist Jason Moran but also Beyoncé. The sister PVA school in Dallas boasts alumni such as Norah Jones, Erykah Badu, and Roy Hargrove. Glasper’s mother, who died three years ago, was his musical mentor, and he pays homage to her with the song “Tribute” on his new album. It incorporates a recording of the eulogy given at her funeral by the Reverend Joe Ratliff. Glasper’s previous album, Canvas, also has a tribute to his mother that includes a recording of her singing as an intro.

In My Element
Robert Glasper. Blue Note Records. $17.98.

Elegy for Fort Greene