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Pianist Robert Glasper Straddles Jazz and R&B at Winter Fest

In Culture, Music
Glasper San Jose Jazz Winter Fest

Robert Glasper and his Experiment take on multiple genres in their performances. Photo by Kamau Ware

In the scheme of things, Robert Glasper knows that winning the 2013 Grammy Award for Best R&B Album is a very big deal. But the jazz pianist’s immediate reaction in the hours after he scored an unprecedented triumph with his Blue Note project Black Radio was to fall soundly asleep.

“I flew into L.A. from Japan five days before the Grammys to produce Chaka Khan’s record. Once we won, my body just crashed, and I slept for about 24 hours,” says Glasper, 34, who plays two shows Saturday at Theatre on San Pedro Square with his Experiment as part of San Jose Jazz’s Winter Fest. “Then I went to Lagos, Nigeria for two days with Maxwell—and I just got back.”

With his serious jazz chops and love of the piano trio format, Glasper might not seem to be a likely candidate to spearhead a soul revival. But his R&B-infused Experiment, the band featured on Black Radio, is steeped in the cadences of the African American church, which is where Glasper learned to play.

His mother, Kim Yvette Glasper, was a Houston institution, a pianist and vocalist who led a soul band and played regular jazz gigs. She was also the music director at the East Wind Baptist Church, which is where Glasper started performing in public. She was killed in a double homicide with Glasper’s stepfather in April 2004.

“I was the only child, and I grew up just with her,” Glasper recalls. “She was one of those moms who didn’t want a babysitter, so when I wasn’t with my aunt, I was at a lot of rehearsals and gigs. She sang everything, and every night [played] a different kind of gig: jazz, R&B, Broadway, pop, rock. I grew up with no understanding of genre, like an iPod on shuffle. That was the vibe.”

Glasper started accompanying his mother in his early teens and co-wrote many of the gospel tunes that she recorded on two albums for Born Again Records. Another pianist who often played with her sparked Glasper’s interest in jazz, showing the aspiring teenager interesting chord voicings. When it came time for him to audition for Houston’s vaunted High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (which also produced drummer Kendrick Scott and pianist Jason Moran), the pianist taught him the Spider Man theme as a minor blues, and it did the trick.

Glasper made the move to New York City in the mid-1990s to study at the New School, which is where he met neo-soul belter Bilal Oliver, who ended up introducing him to numerous hip-hop and R&B artists. For the past decade, Glasper has maintained an enviable double musical life.

He landed a series of high-profile gigs with jazz heavyweights like guitarist Russell Malone, trumpeter Terence Blanchard and bassist Christian McBride while also leading a sophisticated post-bop trio featuring drummer Damion Reed and bassist Vicente Archer. Jazz’s most prestigious label, Blue Note, cemented his status as a rising star by signing him in 2005, the first new addition to the label in five years.

At the same time, he has sustained deep ties to the world of hip-hop, collaborating with artists such as Q Tip, Kayne West, Jay-Z, Talib Kweli, Common and, most importantly, Mos Def (a.k.a. Yasiin Bey), who hired him as music director.

He tried to bridge the two musical realms on his 2009 Blue Note album Double Booked, which he divided between his straight-ahead trio and the Robert Glasper Experiment, a quartet featuring Casey Benjamin on saxophones, flute and vocorder, electric bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Chris Dave.

On Black Radio, Glasper stepped away from jazz to deliver an R&B manifesto featuring a host of soul-drenched singers, including Bilal, Lalah Hathaway, Erykah Badu, Chrisette Michele, Meshell Ndegeocello and East BayÐraised Ledisi (on the Grammy-nominated track “Gonna Be Alright”).

A clever play on words, Black Radio can be seen as a cri de coeur over the sorry state of R&B on the FM dial. But the title track refers to the indestructible black boxes recovered from plane crashes, using the familiar image as a metaphor for the enduring power of black music.

“It has a double meaning,” Glasper says. “When music is crashing around us, this will not burn in the flames. Good music always stands the test of time.”

Whatever side of the street Glasper chooses to play on, his music embodies timeless values, delivering a welcome dose of smart and buoyant soul.

Jose James San Jose Jazz

Jose James

Other Festival Picks:

San Jose Jazz’s Winter Fest (March 6-15) brings an impressive array of talent to the South Bay over the next 10 days, though some of the best acts overlap this weekend at Theatre on San Pedro Square and San Pedro Square Market. Here are several recommended concerts. The action continues on March 15 with the Vijay Iyer Trio.

Jose James
Friday at 8pm, Theatre on San Pedro Square; $25/$30. Always on the lookout for fresh blood to join the thin ranks of male jazz singers, the scene has readily embraced JosŽ James, though he’s still in the process of figuring out where he fits. A soulful crooner, he has explored jazz tunes with pianist Junior Mance and interpreted ballads with McCoy Tyner (in a project based on the classic album pairing vocalist Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane). But his new album on Blue Note, No Beginning No End, taps into hip-hop, soul and electronica, styles he references with authority and fluidity. A real talent to watch.

Delhi 2 Dublin
Friday at 9pm, San Pedro Square Market; $25. Proving that the party music knows no borders, Punjabi bhangra, traditional Irish dance music and international electronica beats come together in British Columbia’s Delhi 2 Dublin. Originally assembled for a St. Patrick’s Day club night in Vancouver seven years ago, the Indian/Irish axis kept the dance floor so packed the musicians decided to turn the one-off project into a band.

Sean Jones
Saturday at 4pm, Theatre on San Pedro Square; $25/$30. A prodigious horn player who held down the lead trumpet chair in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra from 2004 to 2010, Sean Jones is a powerfully expressive improviser who has recorded a series of excellent albums for Mack Jazz focusing on his original compositions. Wynton Marsalis isn’t the only trumpeter who has employed Jones. When masters like Tom Harrell and Jon Faddis keep calling a cat for gigs, he’s got to be fierce.

Tony Monaco Trio
Sunday at 2pm, Theatre on San Pedro Square; $25/$30. On a scene rife with impressive young organ players who know their way around a Hammond B-3, Tony Monaco stands out as one of the very best. Championed by organ great Joey DeFrancesco, who produced his breakthrough 2001 album, Burnin’ Grooves (Summit), Monaco possesses superlative technique, sweat-inducing rhythmic drive and boundless imagination.

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