Robert Glasper – Covered (The Robert Glasper Trio recorded live at Capitol Studios)
(Blue Note. CD Review by Alison Bentley)
‘I feel like people forget I’m a piano player,’ Robert Glasper told one interviewer. After the success of his Black Radio albums (the first won an R&B Grammy), this recording returns to the piano trio format, with bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Damion Reid from his early Blue Note trio albums. Not wanting to lose either his R&B or jazz fans, he fuses R&B songs and jazz improvisation brilliantly in this new album of mostly covers. ‘I didn’t need to display my chops in those [Black Radio] records,’ he says. But this new album reveals his virtuosity to the full. He jokes that copyright prevented him calling the album ‘iPod shuffle’, and you feel these are songs that could be from his iPod, in very different genres- hip hop, Joni Mitchell, Radiohead, a jazz standard- unified by his own distinctive style.
A Macy Gray song from Black Radio opens, (I Don’t Even Care) the piano lyrical against Reid’s delicate stick work on snare and hi-hat: immensely complex electronic-style beats, played with feathery delicacy, echoing Glasper’s scurrying phrases. The trio keep the dense textures of Radiohead’s Reckoner, fleshing out the original’s simple guitar chords on piano whilst bringing the sweet melody to the fore, and a Jarrett-esque feel in parts of the piano solo. Glasper has said that people tend to forget that the piano is a rhythm instrument- this track uses all the piano’s rhythmic potential.
Glasper seems to thrive on strong melodies, such as Joni Mitchell’s Barangrill, Archer’s bass tumbling into ultra-deep countermelodies. There’s a wonderful spaceiness and freedom that recalls Herbie Hancock’s tribute to Mitchell, ‘The Joni Letters.’ Glasper has rightly described Archer and Reid as ‘…considerate and selfless musicians, which makes for the best music, because people leave room and space for things to happen…’ Sometimes Reid seems to be almost damming up beats before letting them overflow back into the spaces.
The solo piano in Glasper’s own In Case You Forgot is virtuosic and fun, as if Cecil Taylor were playing high speed stride. It seems improvised, but occasional bursts of bass and drums mark set points amongst the scampering harmonies. And in case you forgot about other kinds of music, there are immaculate quotes from Bonnie Raitt, Cyndi Lauper and Bette Midler embedded like samples. (Learned from his singer mother: ‘I have a pretty hefty love for Bette Midler!’) Reid’s artillery drum solo and Archer’s athletic bass solo melt into some classic Glasper spread chords in 5/8, circling on the edge of Giant Steps, hip hop mutating into swing.
There are three hip-hop ballads. The trio keeps the romantic mood of Musiq Soulchild’s So Beautiful, the bass pinning down the hook line as the piano improvises around the melody. The piano is so legato, he almost seems to be holding down all fingers at once, running the notes together like an R&B vocalist. Bill Evans-like triads descend over the silky drumming. Jhené Aiko’s minor ballad The Worst is given an Afro-Latin feel with Reid on mallets and some uplifting bossa-influenced chords. Glasper strips away the lushness from John Legend’s Good Morning, keeping a gentle hip hop groove enlivened by the agile bass. The piano plays the tune with vocal phrasing, as if playing the lyrics, before a blissful solo.
Stella By Starlight is the only standard, opening with solo piano as rococo as Art Tatum. The bass comes in, simple and resonant, underpinning the gentle hip hop of Reid’s fluttering brushes and Glasper’s inimitable reharmonisations. Like Soulchild, singer Bilal worked with Glasper on Black Radio, and here his Levels is given an atmospheric instrumental treatment, melancholy and lovely. The bass holds it together with an acoustic techno groove, while the swishy cymbals fill out the sound, reaching a pitch of intensity.
The final two pieces feature spoken word over Glasper’s plaintive, gentle melodies and textures. In Got Over,, Harry Belafonte tells his life story with a preacher’s cadences: ‘Let me tell you who I think I am…I’m one of the ones of colour who got over…I’m one of the ones your bullet missed.’ Glasper ‘…just told him to say something that he thought people needed to hear.’ It’s especially poignant coming before the drifting chords of Kendrick Lamar’s I’m Dying of Thirst, where Glasper’s 6-year-old son recites the names of victims of police brutality.
This is a powerful and beautiful album, drawing together hip hop and drum ‘n’ bass grooves with jazz. The playing is intuitive, brilliant, playful and ultimately very moving. The Robert Glasper Trio have got it covered.