Robert Glasper’s neo-soul wins critics’ praise

Pianist Robert Glasper recently released “Black Radio 2,” to critical acclaim. — Photo/Janette Beckman

Born and raised in Houston, pianist Robert Glasper literally grew up in jazz clubs. His mother performed with a jazz band, and she preferred to bring her young son with her rather than leave him with a sitter. Glasper and his mother were also active in music at their church — his mother sang and played piano, and by age 12, her son had assumed some of the piano duties.

After Houston’s High School for Performing Arts, Glasper moved to New York to study music at the New School. He began gigging around town and found work with such established jazz artists as Philly’s own Christian McBride and the then up-and-coming neo-soul singer Bilal Oliver. Together, the pair would traverse various underground urban music scenes — many of which served as the foundation of the fledgling neo-soul movement.

“I moved up to New York in ‘97 for college, and I met Bilal in college, and we became best friends the same day we met,” recalled Glasper. “We lived together for four years and I was his music director for eight years. And, we just had this conversation a little while ago, I was there right in the middle of the neo-soul sound right when it was happening. We were going to the jam session. Bilal and I would drive down from New York to go to the Black Lily and hang out. So, I was actually there during that time, and when Bilial’s first album came out in 2000, we were on tour with Common and Eryakah Badu. I met The Roots and used to hang with them in New York, and they had the jam sessions called, ‘The Wetlands.’ So, that’s why I feel like I really can speak on the music, because I was at the recording sessions with all these artists, like D’Angelo. I feel like I have that spirit of that music and I remember how it felt, and people were loving it and the vibe it created. Then that vibe gradually died down; it got watered down and other stuff took over. And then music got strange. That’s why I want to bring this back, and I am just so happy so many people are behind it and what we’re doing and how we are doing it.”

The genre’s works incorporate classic soul music, jazz, funk and African musical elements into R&B with the use of live instrumentation. Despite some ambivalence among artists, the term “neo-soul” has gained widespread use by music critics and writers who enjoy the artists and albums associated with the musical style. “To me”, said Glasper, “neo-soul is soul music that is influenced by hip-hop. Neo-soul was influenced a great deal by J Dilla, and for me that’s where it strung from and that’s the vibe. I say neo-soul just so that everyone can know what I am talking about. And a lot of people go, ‘Why it gotta be ‘neo’?’ And I tell them they are not trying to knock it; it is a different kind of soul music. It is not not Aretha Franklin. It’s not Marvin Gaye. You can hear the difference, and there is a difference.”

The “difference” Glasper references is especially clear on “Black Radio 2,” the Robert Glasper Experiment latest album. RGE consists of bassist Derrick Hodge, Casey Benjamin on vocoder and synth, and drummer Mark Colenburg and again enlists a stellar cast of vocalists. The set’s first single, “Calls,” features vocals by Jill Scott. Glasper also has reinterpreted songs from rock acts Nirvana, Radiohead, Soundgarden and David Bowie.

“It has been absolutely amazing,” said Glasper of the response. “I wouldn’t have ever thought it would be the way it is — especially when the music I am making is known as the underground, soul, hip-hop stuff that has kind of like had its day and is gone. I feel as though there is another wave now, and people are like really championing what we are bringing to that sound. So it has been quite a ride.”

As the interview was coming to a close, Glasper did a spontaneous foodie shoutout about his favorite South Street spot. “I’m Ishkabibbles all day,” proclaimed the pianist with a hearty laugh. “Do I know? I think I have been to every Philly cheesesteak spot, but for some reason Ishkabibbles just gives me what I need.”

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Contact staff writer Bobbi Booker at 215-893-5749 or bbooker@phillytrib.com.

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