INTERVIEW: Robert Glasper On Nu Deco Collab, Crossing Over, Blue Note NYC, Surprise Sets With Dave Chappelle & More [B.Getz on L4LM]

Celebrated jazz/hip-hop pianist/composer Robert Glasper has spent the better part of two decades exploring and interpolating the relationship between the time-honored traditions of black music. The three-time Grammy-winner is among the most respected cats in modern jazz circles, but his music and mojo often traverse through more contemporary territories, like soul, R&B, and rap.

Glasper’s eccentric creations often adopt a dusty, Dilla-fied, boom-bap ethos, and occasionally color even further outside the lines when wandering towards art rock. The venerable virtuoso is an uber-confident artist and emboldened sonic adventurer, and he is ready to revisit another familiar realm when he performs an orchestral show with Nu Deco Ensemble in at New World Center in Miami, FL on Friday, March 13th and Saturday, March 14th [grab tickets here].

Created by two of classical music’s most in-demand artists, Jacomo Bairos and Sam Hyken, Nu Deco Ensemble is a “flexible and innovative hybrid orchestra that celebrates living composers, reimagines all genres of music and collaborates with a wide range of diverse musical guests, composers, choreographers, dancers and mixed media artists.” Since its inception in 2015, the 30-piece ensemble has exploded onto Miami’s eclectic musical scene, captivating audiences, engaging with its community and fusing innovative, genre-bending orchestral performances and collaborations with the highest levels of musical artistry. Glasper is in good company in working with Nu Deco Ensemble, whose resume includes collaborations with Wyclef JeanPJ MortonHurray for the Riff RaffRev Run, and more.

Live For Live Music‘s B.Getz was lucky enough to track down the pioneering pianist last week by telephone as Glasper was preparing to soundcheck in London for the grand opening of a new nightclub. He was anxious to let folks know about what’s goin’ down with Nu Deco Ensemble in Miami. He also took a few moments to reflect on his Fuck Yo Feelings mixtape from 2019 and touch on his Blue Note NYC residency that took place in the fall. Glasper spoke of some very special guests like Anderson .Paak and Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def) among other unannounced performances and one impromptu engagement that saw Robert back up Dave Chappelle for a freestyle comedy session in front of a very lucky handful of fans.

Read a transcript of the conversation below, edited for length and clarity.


Live For Live Music: Thanks, Robert, for making the time to speak with Live for Live Music! I’m out here in Oakland, CA. And you are in London! It’s 7:30 in the morning here, a bit of a time difference, but nonetheless a total thrill to speak with you. Can you tell the folks what’s going on in London?

Robert Glasper: Actually, I’m about to soundcheck. We’re here in London opening up a new club. There’s a new club here called Lafayette, and I’m here with my band just doing three nights, the first three nights of the grand opening.

Live For Live Music: Right on. That’s a pretty cool honor that you get to kick things off at the club. No doubt you’ve earned that kind of clout in the game. I want to begin with a look toward this brand-new orchestral piece coming up in Miami next week, a collaboration with Nu Deco Ensemble. What is your history with orchestral music? Please let the folks know what this new project is about.

Robert Glasper: The Nu Deco Ensemble, they contacted me. What they do is… They’re an orchestra in Miami, and they basically bring special guests in and they arrange the songs of the special guests. So they hit me up and I found some of their work on YouTube, it’s really dope. And we sat down and talked about songs of mine that they want to arrange. Some things that I say, “Hey y’all should arrange this.” Some things they say, “Hey, we want to arrange this.” So, they basically took six or so of my tunes and arranged them for the orchestra, and then I wrote a 20-minute piece, a thoroughly composed kind of suite, a piece that’s never been performed, ever. It’s new music, and we’re going to perform it with them for the first time in Miami.

Nu Deco Ensemble – Stevie Wonder’s “Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants”

[Video: Nu Deco Ensemble]

Live For Live Music: Man, that’s gotta feel fantastic to be selected and have your work be so revered. So they’re taking your tunes and sort of re-imagining them in the orchestral setting. Do you have any experience performing in that kind of combination, with an orchestra?

Robert Glasper: Yeah, exactly. I’ve done it a few times. The last thing I did, I did it with the Metropolitan Orchestra in Rotterdam [Netherlands]. We opened up the North Sea Jazz Festival with the orchestra. My performance at the festival included that orchestra, we did all my [original] music, and I had Bilal and Lalah Hathaway as my special guests. It was a little while ago. With Nu Deco Ensemble, this is something totally new, and I’m really excited about traveling to Miami to perform this music.

Robert Glasper (featuring Metropolitan Orchestra) – “Rise And Shine”

[Video: Robert Glasper]

Live For Live Music: People probably call you a “jazz artist” first, or a pianist. But the Fuck Yo Feelings mixtape is really a contemporary presentation of your music within the hip-hop context, and you’ve also got Herbie Hancock on there, a jazz piano icon. Plus his sideman Terrace Martin, a modern-day jazz hero, mixed up with Denzel Curry, Andra Day, Bilal, Mick Jenkins, SiR, and several others… Vocalists at the forefront, but musically held down with you, Derrick [Hodge, bass] and “Daddy” [Chris Dave, drums], so it was still decidedly a Robert Glasper project, yet a total departure [from your usual sound]. Such an ambitious endeavor, what with the documentary that accompanied the mixtape…

What was your intention with Fuck Yo Feelings? It’s one that I play quite frequently. But feels kinda outta left field… for you [laughs].

Robert Glasper: I first kind of crossed over with Black Radio, and that was in 2012. But before I ever tried to crossover, say, like Herbie Hancock did with “Rockit”, I wanted to establish myself as a jazz musician. I want to make sure that I get the respect of being a solidified jazz musician first.

With “Rockit”, Herbie… he did his time, and for a long time, playing with Miles Davis, or his own stuff, with all the great players. So when he decided to cross over, it was the real crossover, and you respected him for it. You respect him a lot more, actually, because of his skills, how much work he put in already. So I wanted to be sure I did a few albums like that first, and then cross over and do my R&B/hip hop.

Live For Live Music: What makes a crossover believable or legit in your eyes, or to your ears?

Robert Glasper: A true crossover, when I think of a crossover, I think of basketball. A real crossover only works when you know that the person with the basketball can actually dribble equally with both hands. He can go left or go right. You know what I mean?

Live For Live Music: Sure, you’ve got to believe it. [Allen] Iverson had the ill crossover.

Robert Glasper: Exactly, you’ve got to believe it. And that’s the problem with people crossing over these days—there’s always a weak link. They’re either coming from a place that they’re not really good at going into something they’re actually good at, or they’re coming from a place that they’re really good at and going into something they’re not good at.

That crossover, it never really works, it’s not really authentic. So, I feel like when I crossed over, it was super authentic because, in every genre of music I play, I played with some of the best in that genre, the masters of that genre. So, for lack of a better word, I studied. I went to school for each genre, but in real life onstage, too.

Robert Glasper (featuring T3) – “Climax” [J Dilla Tribute]

[Video: Evan Pragliola]

Live For Live Music: The artists you collab with clearly have a great deal of admiration and respect for what you do. The guest list on the mixtape is kind of like a who’s who of black music, going back to Herbie, but current and contemporary as well, with YBN Cordae and Anderson. Paak, among others. You’ve worked with such an assortment of accomplished musicians.

Robert Glasper: The sessions themselves, in the studio, they were one long hang-slash-party [laughs]. People comin’ and goin’, like “why don’t you get on this one?” It was really fun, and it came out great.

Live For Live Music: On the heels of that release, 56 shows in 28 nights at the Blue Note NYC. What an honor! To be able to present your whole career, to put the original Robert Glasper Experiment back together, to have Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def) come out and rock with you. Obviously, you’ve played a number of Blue Note residencies through the years and probably Blue Notes around the world. Why was this residency just so… grandiose?

Robert Glasper: This one was so grand because it’s New York, so obviously, it’s the best and most famous Blue Note. It’s the most prestigious, right? And when you do a residency in New York, it’s like that’s the Mecca of musicians. The most musicians live in New York, most of the great ones, anyway, live in New York. New York is New York, it’s the people that if you’re an independent business, you’re probably coming through New York at some point in that month for something.

So, it’s just a great place to do something like that, and just to live for five weeks [laughs]! It was amazing, man. It was amazing. So much love and so many people came through just to hang out. Like you said, Yasiin Bey was my first guest for the first week. And, you know, it’s all about the surprise people that pop up on you.

Robert Glasper, Yasiin Bey, Esperanza Spalding, Justin Tyson – The Blue Note NYC

[Video: Evan Pragliola]

Live For Live Music: Yea, I saw some of that reported in the music media. Could you please reflect on some of the really special happenings from that humongous run of shows? A couple that stick with you a few months down the road?

Robert Glasper: We had Anderson .Paak, we had Q-Tip, we had Black Box. We did the Dilla tribute. Dave Chappelle came three days in a row and introduced me. Tiffany Haddish came and sang… I can’t even begin to remember all the people, but it was just… it was just so good. You know, it’s like a movie. But it’s great to have people, not just musicians, to come to your shows and want to hang out and want to be a part of it. So that felt really good, and it was an honor to do that, and do it there.

At the end of the run, the last three shows I did… Dave Chappelle came to the last three, and after my show, me, Dave, and like 20 people would go across the street to the Comedy Cellar and Chappelle would go into this impromptu two-hour show.

Live For Live Music: Word! Talk about surprises. What was that all about?

Robert Glasper: We did that every night of the final three. And the very last night, there was a piano there (at the Comedy Cellar). They put their keyboard up there, and I played for two hours behind Dave while he just fucked around and did jokes. So it’s that kind of spontaneity, and you don’t know where the night’s going to go, how it’s going to go. Every night when I walk into Blue Note, when I walk in the club, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I check my phone and it’s like, “Yo, me and so and so are falling through,” you know what I mean? So I’ve had so many people do that. So it was great and there was a lot of unexpected shit because all that wasn’t planned.

Robert Glasper, Derrick Hodge, Chris Dave, Dave Chappelle – “Hard Bop” – The Blue Note NYC

[Video: strokesoco]

Live For Live Music: Damn, Robert. That sounds just… unreal. Thanks for sharing those personal accounts. I have to ask… are there any plans to do it again this year?

Robert Glasper: Oh yeah! I’m doing it again this year. We locked it in. I’m doing five weeks in October. But I haven’t even begun to figure it out, to map out what I’m doing week-to-week. I won’t even know that until probably August, September. Then, when people be like, “Well, who’s popping through next week?” I’m like, “I don’t know who’s popping through until that night!”

Live For Live Music: That’s what keeps it fresh and keeps it exciting. I bet it keeps you on the edge of your piano chair throughout the gigs.

Robert Glasper: Yep. I have friends that get mad at me because they’ll find out that Chappelle or whoever came through and they’ll be like, “I asked you yesterday who was coming, why didn’t you tell me?” It’s like, “I didn’t know yesterday. I didn’t know this was happening yesterday.” There is no such thing as “what’s going to be the greatest, the best night,” because I just don’t know.

Live For Live Music: That’s got to be so fulfilling, as an artist and a member of the music community, to see your peers and fellow collaborators turn out… you’re talking about Dave Chappelle or Yasiin Bey or Herbie Hancock. Major cats! It’s a testament to who you are as an artist, your catalog and what you’ve contributed to the music communities in jazz, hip-hop, R&B and beyond. What can we look forward to after the Nu Deco performance, the orchestral piece next weekend? What’s on the docket for Robert Glasper moving forward?

Robert Glasper: I’ve been working on my next record, Black Radio 3. Pretty much… I started in February. So, I’m kind of taking a break from it to be here in London, and from here, I’m going straight to Miami to do that Nu Deco Orchestra. And then, I’m going right back in the studio immediately after that, I’m going to keep working on the record. So that’s what’s next on the horizon for me, Black Radio 3.

Live For Live Music: That’s exciting! We’ll look forward to hearing what comes of those sessions and your new compositions. And, of course, that series is so iconic. I mean… the first Black Radio, in addition to winning a Grammy, it was like a seismic shift, like a musical, cultural bomb that went off. People are still digging deep figuring out that record.

Robert Glasper: Word, word. Thank you. To be honest, man, that record… it came together the week before the recording sessions. It came together that week because… originally I kept canceling the record because when you have so many guests like that, you have too many people to deal with and too many schedules to deal with, and it’s hard to get everybody. That was 2011, or 2010… So, it wasn’t as much of the transferring files, or the “send me your vocals” or emailing tracks back then. I was coming from the jazz world. Recording studios. I was like, “I want everybody in the studio at the same time.” You know, “I want the artists here.” But, I learned it wasn’t so easy.

So, it ended up finally coming together and happening literally the week before we went in the studio. I did the record the next week. There are so many covers on Black Radio because I didn’t have enough songs! It came out of the blue and my manager was like, “They’re available next week.” I was like, “I don’t have any songs!” So that’s why I did “[Smells Like] Teen Spirit”, David Bowie, and “Afro Blue”—because I didn’t have time to write original songs for that record.

Live For Live Music: Right on. Thanks for the context. It’s always interesting to find out what was going on with the creative process and the players, particularly on such a landmark release. Covering pop songs is a time-honored tradition in jazz music. For what it’s worth, I think that’s what makes Black Radio so potent and so accessible to such a wide swath of listeners: the fact that the material is familiar. It’s just a different access point.

Robert Glasper: I took something from that, I learned from that. And that’s exactly what I learned. I was like, “Actually this turned out better because the songs that people already know, they gravitate towards those songs and those arrangements… they know the song already.” So, it’s always nice to have a little something people are familiar with.

words: B.Getz