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Robert Glasper Has the Freedom to Take Flight

The legendary jazz pianist discusses his craft, creating during COVID, and his new LP, ‘Black Radio III’

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The artificial doves hang from strings in the rafters and the OVO owl is confined to his hat, but the fluttering piano man Robert Glasper is as free as can be. It wasn’t always like this. It took him some time: a heralded Blue Note Records arrival. A couple of Grammy wins. A few movie scores, including one for a flick about an old horn player who felt kind of blue. Now, though? Hm.

“I just learned to try, as much as I can,” Glasper says, speaking in allegro meter, “not to let people tell me what I am.”

He’s picking at a plate of pearly burrata. We’re tucked a half-shout away from the bar in a glittering hotel lobby off Park Avenue. It’s mid-February and unseasonably warm, and Glasper’s got a new album coming out—the second sequel to an old album, his magnum opus, the genre-bending transcendentally slick Black Radio. This one’s called Black Radio III and it dropped on Friday.

By the time I’d strode through the entryway, a small greenhouse of a vestibule, and ambled across the taproom’s wide alabaster floors, Glasper had already carved out a nook for the two of us. He offered me a drink: “My tab’s open. Get something.” He says that’s just how his late momma, a bellowing gospel singer named Kim, raised him.

Her first love was jazz, but she laced Glasper’s childhood home with syrupy funk and silky R&B. (Father Glasper used to crank the Isley Brothers, Luther Vandross, and especially Anita Baker.) On Sundays, Kim directed the church choir. Most other days, she had gigs across the city, which served as young Robert’s day care and musical incubator. He picked up the piano from one of her bandmates and, well, that was that.

Next stop, Houston’s legendary High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, where Glasper got heavy into jazz (when he was a senior, a freshman named Beyoncé Knowles had just enrolled); after that, away to the School for Jazz and Contemporary Music at New York’s New School. On the first day of undergrad, all the freshmen had to get on stage together and jam. Glasper cast quite the shadow. “Silly good,” is how his schoolmate and frequent collaborator Bilal described the performance over the phone.

“You could hear his personality.”

With Bilal’s help, Glasper soon connected with the Souliquarians—a collection of soul revivalists that included the Roots, Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, and J Dilla. Between 2000 to 2010, he signed to the biggest label in jazz, released four highly acclaimed LPs, thumbed his nose and ran laps around the genre’s stuffy white establishment, and commenced his most treasured campaign: to ply and revel in the space between genres. In 2012, he conjured Black Radio as the ultimate elixir.

“They try to put you in a certain box, then they’re comfortable in that box, so they can do it too. And then they can be the head of it now,” Glasper says, having moved on to a few fluorescent cherry tomatoes. “[On Black Radio] I was like, ‘No, this is what I’m doing. Listen to this record. It’s not about what I am. We don’t know what I am. I’m a lot of things.’”

In the years since its release he’s kicked it with Kendrick on To Pimp a Butterfly (that’s him drizzling acoustic honey all over “These Walls”), produced and composed for the likes of Mac Miller, Brittany Howard, and Anderson .Paak, and formed multiple super groups with an eclectic array of artists ranging from the rapper Common to the saxophonist Kamasi Washington. For the past 20 or so months Glasper’s been mostly huddled in his home studio, chipping away at Black Radio III.

Collaboration in the time of COVID has been a drag, but he’s not the type to leave a groove hanging. He managed to pick up features from Killer Mike, H.E.R., Esperanza Spalding, and Posdnuos of De La Soul—plus a vivrant little Q-Tip verse. “Sometimes labels and management get it wrong,” Glasper says, digits fully extended. “I want to hit the artist myself.” The new record’s got a distinctly throwback gospel hue, with enough kick to stave off the ire of any zoomers in earshot. It’s not exactly young but it ain’t exactly stale either. Glasper, 43, still has that voltage in his hands.

He leans back into his chair when he’s really thinking. The seat is plush and low, with an array of gold bars that jut out to form a roof over his head. On a different figure it’d look confining—like those coops Maya Angelou wrote about. But on this bird, constraints, even of the most glittering kind, don’t fit. Glasper’s been off that.

Your music has always struck me as particularly communal. You’ve said before that many of your records have basically been just you and the artists you’re closest to, jamming nonstop for a period of weeks before exiting to breathe. How did the pandemic scuttle that approach for Black Radio III?

It took longer than normal. Usually my whole thing with Black Radio is to have the artists in the studio. So literally the music for Black Radio was done in like six days. Everything was done for Black Radio 2 in seven, eight days. It’s hard to get an artist in the studio for their own shit anyway without a pandemic, but with the pandemic it was even harder. Artists are depressed. Artists aren’t feeling artistic. A lot of people didn’t feel the mojo. Like, “Man, I’m not singing right now. I can’t even write.”

Was that disheartening, as someone whose creative energy is fueled off those kinds of interactions?

Yeah, it’s totally different. Me and my boy Terrace Martin built a studio, so I had my own studio in the back of my house. I was able to just go in and create, by myself, whenever I felt like it. That’s the first album I’ve done that. It was definitely different than what I’m used to but I felt like just the fact that we’re in this pandemic is a reason to do the album. I owed my fans this, you know what I mean? Like they need this.

I remember thinking, on first listen, “Damn, this is a real soulful album.” Is that something that was intentional?

That’s interesting. The first songs I learned how to play on the piano were gospel tunes. People think I started at 2; most people who were good at piano start when they’re 2 or 3—really young. I started when I was 11 playing with one finger in church, learning the songs. And then I just quickly got fast. Once I tapped into it, then it was like, “zoom.” This record, maybe that gospel just came out a little bit more for some reason. Maybe it’s because of the times we’re in. Because I’m feeling that, I’m feeling spiritual.

Is there a time in your life that you’ve most needed music?

When my mom passed. She passed in 2004 and I stopped playing for a while. I wasn’t doing no gigs on tour or nothing. I just stopped. I stopped playing for about two months. There’s a point where you don’t want to do anything and there’s a point where you have to do something to get you out of it. I wore the same trench coat for two weeks. I didn’t shower. I literally was wearing the same thing for like two weeks. Went to sleep in it. Music helped me through that. There’s this song by Jason Moran, piano player. He has a song called “Gentle Shifts South.” I listened to that over and over, and over, and over, and over again.

A fog of grief.

Just a complete fog, and it’s like you try and plug in pieces of things that’ll get you up. But sometimes music is the only thing you can do. It was a lot of pressure then. I didn’t want to fail because I didn’t want to fail her. She died a year before I got signed. So it was all that. Because I wanted to please my mom, I wanted to make her proud. I didn’t want to let the world down, my family down. I didn’t want to let the label down. I didn’t want to let music down.

How did you exorcise that? Or is it something you still find yourself falling back in?

Well, the record did very well. And then I realized I have something to say, I have a voice. As long as I’m honest and saying what I personally feel musically, I’m going to be OK. Because there’s a place for it. There’s people that understand it. There’s people it helps. When you do an album and you start touring, you get to talk to people and they tell you what your record has done for them, your music. Once somebody tells you, “I gave birth to your music,” “I got married to your music.” “Your music stopped me from committing suicide.” I’ve heard them all. Once somebody tells you that, you realize what you’re making music for. After that, I was never afraid.

I read this quote from you. You were talking about your relationship with Herbie Hancock. You said that one of the things that you learned from him was that you’re a person first and you’re a musician second. You said, “What you do can always be taken away from you. Then you’re just left with who you are.” That couldn’t have been an easy realization.

I’ve been in this industry for a minute and I’ve seen people who are just fucking assholes. Just bad, not nice people, based on how good they think they are at what they do, and that’s terrible. That sucks, because I’ve seen people be great at something and the next day they can’t do it anymore. I know a friend who plays saxophone and accidentally got his two left fingers chopped off. Boom, gone. Can’t play no more. I know a piano player that had a stroke, can’t play. I know a piano player who was digging his hand for an ice cream scooper. And he hit the joint and it poked a nerve. Fucked his whole hand up. He can’t play. So what you do is not who you are. You are a person first and you are blessed to be able to do something. You have to remember that.

Is it true that you used to play twice a night, once under your real name and once under an alias on some MF DOOM shit?

Oh, absolutely. Same time. Same night. I was at the Blue Note and the Village Vanguard. And the Blue Note used to do late-night sessions. Friday night and Saturday nights, they do sessions that start at like 1 a.m. So Vanguard, I would be there with my traditional trio. Sets were like 8:30, 10:30. We finished there at midnight. And then I go right around to the Blue Note and do my late-night session under a whole different situation, with a different name.

What’s the first jazz record you ever bought?

My first “jazz tape,” in quotations now, was Kenny G, Silhouette. Yeah, Silhouette. It was Kenny G, because at the time I was playing clarinet in high school. In junior high and part of high school, I played clarinet. And I used to try to play my clarinet like Kenny G, out the side of my mouth. And my fucking, the orchestra director was always mad at me, “Glasper!” Because I was like [singing], trying to do vibrato and shit like Kenny G.

At what point does rap come into the fold?

I really got into it hardcore when I moved to New York. The Roots was doing jam sessions every week. I’m going with Bilal. I met Bilal in school the first day of college. So he knew all the cats, he knew the Roots and stuff. He’s from Philly. So he’s taking me to all the jam sessions with the Roots, and I’m meeting Common and Erykah. I kind of got thrusted into it when I first got here, like, “Oh shit, I’m meeting Q-Tip. I’m teaching Common piano lessons. I don’t even know. Like I’m really in here.”

I’ve always looked at your work as kind of a refusal to relinquish space. A refusal to cede jazz music to a white establishment. A refusal to let anyone tell Black artists—the folks who created the genre—what jazz is. I wonder, do you think of yourself that way? Or do you think of yourself as just somebody who’s trying to just make some good music?

I just make good music and I make music that registers to me. I make music that is honest to me. But at the same time, I’m aware that all them motherfuckers can kick rocks. I’m definitely aware of how the establishment, white people, can take your music and try to control it, and do whatever they want with it. Tell you how to do it, and tell you what it should be, and do all these things when they’re not even in control of this. They’re not the creator of this. Black people have created so much music that the world loves and the world wants to be a part of. R&B is ours. Gospel is ours. Hip-hop is ours. Rock is ours. Blues is ours. I mean, we can go on and on and on. And everyone in the world wants a piece of those things.

They believe that they can take it, if they please.

Exactly. To the point where when you look at all those genres that I just named, the biggest people in those genres are white. If you really look at it, biggest-selling hip-hop artist, Eminem. Biggest-selling R&B artist, Adele, Justin Timberlake. Biggest-selling gospel, they change all the time, but now they have Christian contemporary music? Somebody white. I forget their names, but they’re white. I’m a fan of everybody loving music. But it’s like, we have a different story than everybody else. And we’ve been robbed of so many more things than everybody else in music.

This transcript was lightly edited for length and clarity.