Foundations: Robert Glasper

Grammy-winner on his most inspirational LPs...

Foundations is Clash’s series uncovering the albums that make our favourite artists tick – the records that have influenced them in ways that others haven’t. Their foundations. You get it, right?

Here, we speak to Grammy-winning jazz pianist Robert Glasper, whose ‘Black Radio’ (2012) and ‘Black Radio 2’ (2013) albums have successfully melded myriad styles to produce magical results. R&B, hip-hop, jazz… it all comes together in a fashion that’s organic, nothing forced.

Glasper’s long been involved with music ‘outside’ of straight jazz territories. He’s worked at length with Bilal, Maxwell and Mos Def, and has featured on recordings by Kanye West, Erykah Badu, Common, Jay Z, J Dilla… the list is long, and hugely impressive.

‘Black Radio 2’ is out now on Blue Note. Find the Clash review here, and check the video for ‘Calls’, featuring Jill Scott, below. His Foundations selections follow…

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Keith Jarrett – ‘Still Live’ (1986)

“I got this album when I was a freshman in high school, and I fell in love with it. I was playing myself then. There’s something about his intro to ‘My Funny Valentine’… the intro itself is about seven minutes long, just solo piano. And that, by itself… I learned that whole intro. I played it over and over.

“I think ‘Still Live’ is one of the top five jazz records of all time. I listen to it all the time. And he’s still really productive – but my favourite stuff from Keith Jarrett is when he was in this trio, on this album, with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette.

“Jarrett is a player who touches me emotionally – he’s the one piano player who can literally make me cry. He’s also a piano player who plays so much from the heart that you can’t even transcribe what he’s doing. Like, nobody transcribes Keith Jarrett’s solos, really, because he plays the language of bebop, but not, at the same time. If you’re not hip to him – he sings when he plays, which is a bit weird – then you can miss out on all this raw emotion.

“I would love to have a career as long as Keith’s. He still sounds great. Playing the piano – it’s something you can do ‘til you’re old, so…”

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Kirk Franklin – ‘Kirk Franklin And The Family’ (1993)

“Kirk is a gospel artist – and he’s the artist who made gospel cross over, into the mainstream, into R&B and hip-hop. He had a song called ‘Why We Sing’, which may have been the first church song to ever be played on main R&B, and hip-hop stations. Kirk was making gospel cool, getting it played on these hot radio stations, these ‘regular’ R&B stations.

“Kirk is very, super-important in the gospel realm. Everybody would do his songs. His very first album, ‘Kirk Franklin And The Family’, is probably, to this day, one of the most famous gospel records. It totally changed the game – everyone in church was playing these songs. I started playing in church, when I was like 11. And normally gospel music sounded one-way: it was religious, and that was that, not too much fun. When Kirk Franklin came into the game, and started mixing R&B with gospel, and mixing in Latin and jazz too… he made it okay to do this, when a lot of people in church might have considered those types of music unholy.

“I remember, I was playing in church and I tried a song like Kirk Franklin, in that style. And the pastor came over and said, ‘Don’t ever do that again.’ Like it was very taboo. He was like: ‘Forget that.’ He wanted to get a message across about God, but to do that you can’t just keep in these same small circles. Kirk found a global way, through mixing up his music – the message stayed the same, the music just sounded different. And music can’t be evil. Lyrics can be evil, but a chord change? Like C-minor to D-minor? How can that be evil? I don’t understand that.

“So Kirk blurred the lines, between gospel music and everything else. He made it fun to play gospel – and that’s why I’m doing what I’m doing now, mixing these elements together.”

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Billy Joel – ‘Storm Front’ (1989)

“This record has ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’ on it, but it ain’t all about that. It’s about this song called ‘And So It Goes’.

“Billy Joel is one of my favourite piano players. I listened to a lot of pop-rock when I was coming up, and my mum did, too – she was into a lot of everything, and that was a very encouraging thing. She was a musician, so would learn all of this different music, to fit the bands she was in. So there was always different music playing in the house – and I’ve always loved Billy Joel’s piano playing, and the way he accompanies himself on the piano. His touch, his vibe, the whole thing.

“I heard this song… I’ll never forget where I heard it. I was watching TV, and there was an awards show on. Billy Crystal introduced Billy Joel, and Billy Crystal said: ‘He’s going to do a song called ‘And So It Goes’, and it’s one of my favourites.’ It was one of Billy Crystal’s favourites, and then Billy Joel sat down at the piano – the song is just vocal and piano.

“The lyrics to this song… Now, at this time I’m in the seventh grade, maybe. The lyrics to this song, they’re some of the most incredible lyrics I’ve ever heard. I used to write the lyrics out, as a poem, and give them to girls. The first lines say: ‘In every heart there is a room / A sanctuary safe and strong / To heal the wounds from lovers past / Until a new one comes along.’ They made a girl cry once, in a good way… though it didn’t really help me out.

“So there’s the lyrics, and Billy Joel’s touch on the piano, and the voicing he’s using as he sings. Every syllable of the song has a chord. It’s very nursery rhyme-like, exactly. I’d never thought about it like that. But that’s one of my favourite songs of all time, and I’d listen to it, back to back to back to back…”

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A Tribe Called Quest – ‘Midnight Marauders’ (1993)

“So at this point they’d already done ‘The Low End Theory’, so I’ll tell you why it’s this album, for me. ‘Midnight Marauders’ struck a chord with me because of the song ‘Lyrics To Go’. That one song.

“So this song caught my ear before anything else on the album. Its chord changes, and the sample… they were killing me. I was like, ‘What the hell is that?’ So I researched it, and found that it was Minnie Ripperton’s song, ‘Inside My Love’. And it turns out that the person playing the Rhodes on that track was Joe Sample, from Houston, Texas – where I was from – and who I love. He had an album called ‘Ashes To Ashes’ which I listened to all the time – I was struggling with putting that into my five or not.

“So, it’s like: ‘Okay, I love this loop… it’s retarded, I love it, and it’s by Joe Sample. Oh snap.’ And then I got the record, and it became one of my favourite records of all time. This was the first Tribe record I owned, yeah.

“Later, when I worked with Q-Tip, on ‘The Renaissance’, I’d actually known him a while. We met in like 1999, through my boy Bilal, because Tribe was starting a record label and they wanted to sign him. Bilal was my best friend, so I’d just roll with him, and me and Tip became friends. He used to come to little jazz clubs in Brooklyn and just hang out, and I’d go to his house and just work on things. Tip likes to work on things for a long time. He loves working on albums, and not putting them out.

“So, ‘The Renaissance’, that came out in 2008. And I’d been going over to Tip’s house for six years before then, working on stuff, recording all these things. So by the time the album came out I certainly wasn’t all fanboy around him anymore. I’d been on tour with him a few times. He’s great, because he’s a true musician – he’s a fan of the music. Like, he understands chord changes. We’ll be rehearsing, I’ll be playing, he’ll be rapping, and then he’ll be like: ‘No, stop, don’t play A-minor there.’ Or he’ll give me cues: ‘Yo, let’s go to that D-flat major chord.’ Y’know, that’s really killing that he’s into music the way he is.

“Why isn’t Tip bigger? He had his chance, his best shot at being really mainstream, and that was with ‘Vivrant Thing’ and ‘Breathe And Stop’, the tracks with J Dilla. Those were huge songs, but he never toured them. I dunno… He DJs in New York now, two or three times a week, in different spots. He has his nights. I’m gonna get into that soon, too.”

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Michael Jackson – ‘Off The Wall’ (1979)

“This is my single favourite album. It’s my inspiration. I don’t want to make ‘Off The Wall’ again, exactly – how could you? – but this is my inspiration for ‘Black Radio’.

“‘Off The Wall’ sounds like… It sounds like a bunch of people got in a room with a bunch of instruments and played those same instruments for the whole record. And then Michael came in, into that same room. There was just one thought that day. This doesn’t feel like, from track to track, they’re looking for different sounds – it sounded like a complete thought, a complete vibe. It’s very warm, and dark.

“I think Michael always had a new sound in mind – he never really conformed to what was happening in pop. If he did, he did in his own way, and it was still Michael. He had that capacity to make something you thought you knew sound different.

“The guy who played the Rhodes on ‘Off The Wall’, Greg Phillinganes, he caught my ear too. His playing is so warm and buttery – I love that sound. Love that sound. I use Rhodes on both ‘Black Radio’ albums. It’s a sound that’s largely missing now – it could do with a resurgence. I suppose it had one during the early-‘00s neo-soul movement. But neo-soul went bad.

D’Angelo? I was at the recording sessions for ‘Voodoo’, at Electric Lady Studios in New York. I was upstairs working with Bilal – we were there for a month, recording a record that never came out because it got bootlegged. Erykah Badu was in the middle, making ‘Mama’s Gun’ – and then D’Angelo was at the bottom, recording ‘Voodoo’. So I got the chance to see all that shit. I was also around for when Common was recording ‘Like Water For Chocolate’, as Bilal sang on that.

“But back to ‘Off The Wall’… me and my mama, we were living with my aunt. I was in third grade. I had a record player, and I’d take ‘Off The Wall’ and unfold its art, because you could do that. I’d spread it out on the ground, and play that record for hours. And, it was my favourite album. I don’t think you get that kind of connection, that physical connection, with records anymore. I don’t think I’ve had it since then. It was a different thing, a whole different thing.

“I got to see Michael play live, too. On the Victory tour in 1984 – I was six. That was between ‘Thriller’ and ‘Bad’ – and I got ‘Bad’ for Christmas. I didn’t like Moonwalker (Clash feature on its anniversary) so much. But for ‘Black Radio 2’, I recorded it in the same studio that ‘Off The Wall’ was made, at Westlake [Audio, Hollywood]. I put my piano where they’d built a riser for John Robinson’s drums. And there’s a room for Bubbles there – Bubbles would freak out when Michael would go in to record, because he couldn’t see him, so they made a Bubbles room with a window, so he could see everybody. A chimp room. It’s crazy! You go in there and there’s all this memorabilia – like, Michael’s lyrics for ‘Billie Jean’, written on a napkin. They have the napkin. All kinds of stuff like that.

“There never has been, and never will be, a more famous person than Michael Jackson, period. People try to say The Beatles, but not only did they split that fame four ways, but there are places on Earth where members of The Beatles could walk and they’d not be disturbed. Did The Beatles slaughter every demographic? No, they didn’t. Michael could walk through the jungle, and those tribes there would know who he was. There was nowhere he could go. Everyone knew Michael Jackson. There’s nobody nearly as famous.

“The only person I would say was almost as famous is Elvis Presley. Because he had a distinct look. You see him: it’s only him. Madonna, she’s famous, but she can walk some places and the people there just think: ‘Oh look, a white lady.’ A lot of white, European acts never really scratched the surface with urban audiences. A lot of urban audiences just didn’t get Madonna. She can go to the south side of Chicago, and walk through, and nobody would notice that’s Madonna.

“But Michael… there is no demographic that doesn’t know him. He’s unparalleled. The only… Jesus… (Laughing) Jesus is the only person as big as Michael Jackson.”

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As told to Mike Diver
Photo: Janette Beckman

Find Robert Glasper online here

More Foundations pieces can be found here

The new issue of Clash magazine, starring M.I.A., is out now.  

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