There are plenty of jazz fans whose faces light up when they hear seasoned practitioners of the discipline unfurling bebop lines that are pretty reminiscent of the original sounds of then-modern jazz. And there are those who feel that jazz, like any art form, has by definition to constantly evolve.
Pianist Robert Glasper definitely belongs to the latter camp, as will be evident when he takes the stage of the Opera House in Tel Aviv on December 2, together with the other members of the Robert Glasper Experiment quintet. The concert is the harbinger of the new jazz season at the Opera, with acclaimed New York-based Israeli bassist and oud player Omer Avital, bass player Kyle Eastwood and singer Rochelle Pearl making up the rest of the season’s acts.
The 38-year-old Glasper has put out half a dozen albums to date and has clearly made some progress along his artistic growth continuum. He started out as something of a mainstream jazz artist and gradually gravitated towards more soul, R&B and hip hop lines of sonic venturing. The move certainly helped to raise Glasper’s profile, and his Black Radio album, which came out in 2012, garnered the 2013 Grammy for Best R&B Album.
In case we are in doubt at all about the ivory tickler’s intentions, he spells them out to us in simple terms in the opening track of his latest release for Blue Note Records, ArtScience, which will form the bedrock of the band’s show in Tel Aviv.
The first track, “This Is Not Fear,” is initially something of an incongruent slot in the 12-number offering. It opens with a mix of textures and rhythms that tend more towards the free end of the jazz spectrum. Then, around one and a half minutes in, there is a palpable change of stylistic tack as Glasper’s voiceover kicks in: “The reality is, my people have given the world so many styles of music,” he declares, referring to the African American community.
“So why should I just confine myself to one? We want to explore them all.”
Why indeed? There is no way the listener can misinterpret that message.
Glasper and his band – guitarist Mike Severson, bassist Burniss Traviss II, drummer Mark Colenburg and Casey Benjamin, who plays saxophone and produces some intriguing sonic manipulations on synth-fed vocoder – are putting out.
Glasper says the opening gambit was predominantly about helping the band to push its boat out.
“I wanted to see what this band can do at a high level and how we can put out more and more genres at a high level and mix it all together. We try to nail all the nuances of each genre because we’ve studied the music,” he says.
Glasper constantly puts his money where his mouth is, and once he had put down his more conventional jazz roots, it was time for lift-off.
“I was pacing things out,” he says. “I wanted to give respect to the jazz world first by putting out straight-up trio albums. I wanted to solidify myself as a bona fide jazz pianist so that when I move on and do other stuff, I would be respected more. People respect you more if you come from a jazz place at a high level.”
He needn’t have worried. His albums have been well received throughout, and he maintains a busy touring schedule across the calendar. I caught up with him while he was en route to his first gig in his pre-Israel UK tour, and that was followed by gigs in France, Spain and Romania before eventually hitting Tel Aviv.
Gasper paid his academic dues, honing his craft at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in the late 1990s, where he came under the formative influence of someone who was to have an invaluable impact on the evolution of the Israeli jazz scene.
Saxophonist and venerated jazz educator Arnie Lawrence was one of the founders of the New School before he came on aliya in the late 1990s.
“I loved Arnie,” says Gasper. “I played in Arnie’s band when I was in my first year at the school. I was with a singer called Bilal Oliver. When we came to the school, Arnie took us under his wing.”
In fact, Gasper’s musical education began at a very early age.
“For me, growing up in church, that taught me how to play from my heart,” Gasper explains, “not for the sake of playing or for the sake of impressing people.”
That childhood education was the result of the fact that Gasper’s mother, Kim Yvette Glasper, was a professional jazz and blues singer. She took her young son with her to club gigs, but she was also the music director at the East Wind Baptist Church in Texas, where Glasper first performed in public.
“When you play in church, you play with your heart and soul. You play for God and for people who are worshiping God,” he says.
It was a good learning curve to take on.
“Playing in church also gets you ready for performance because the church is the only place where, as a seven-year-old kid, you can play in front of people every week. When I was 11 or 12, I was playing in front of 100 people every week,” he recounts.
The audiences grew incrementally.
“When I was 15, I played in front of 10,000 people. The church I played at at the time was the biggest church in Houston; it had 10,000 members,” he says.
The youngster was clearly ready to hit the scene, but he bided his time and made sure he got a good formal education under his belt first. He also enjoyed fruitful synergies with some of the biggest names in the music industry and had the opportunity to pay tribute to legendary trumpeter Miles Davis when he served as musical supervisor, composer and arranger for 2015 Davis biopic Miles Ahead.
Glasper said he had a blast with that project.
“I didn’t just want to do the music in the same way as Miles did it. I asked if I could go into the vaults and take his recordings and multitrack while I was recording. I kind of messed with it and made new stuff out of the old stuff,” he says.
Sounds like what Glasper’s been doing for some time now.
The Robert Glasper Experiment quintet will perform on December 2 at the Opera House in Tel Aviv. For tickets and more information: (03) 692-7777 and www.israel-opera.co.il