Yeah,” the first single from Black Radio, Robert Glasper’s jazz piano licks compete for space
with the vocals of Musiq Soulchild and Chrisette Michele, like they’re trying
to find some room to stretch out. At 4:15, the vocalists step back from the
Rhodes-driven groove and Glasper’s acoustic keys have the spotlight. The
problem is, the song ends 45 seconds later with a fade and it doesn’t leave
much time for a full solo. One track earlier, Glasper lays down some rapid runs
across the keyboard, but they also come in the final seconds of “Move Love”‘s
fair, Black Radio isn’t trying to be
a jazz album where the musicians get to blow proper solos. This is Glasper’s
full blown attempt to merge his
chops with his hip-hop influences. The late producer J Dilla was an inspiration
as well as a collaborator, so the term “crossover” doesn’t fit the bill here.
Glasper knows all about what he’s trying to incorporate into his work. Whether
it feels convincing or not – that’s another story.
Robert Glasper Experiment features the pianist also playing 88s, Rhodes and synthesizer, along with Casey Benjamin (flute,
vocoder, saxophone, synthesizer), Derrick Hodge (bass) and Chris Dave (drums).
With them, they have a new guest on virtually all 12 of the album’s tracks,
including vocalists Erykah Badu, Lalah Hathaway and Meshell Ndegeocello, and
rappers such as Lupe Fiasco and Mos Def (now known as Yasiian Bey). They’re all
solid company, who can hold their own in a jazz-based environment, but Black Radio is bogged down by too many
songs that lock into the same slow tempo and a rigid two-chord vamp. Even with
Hodge and Dave driving the rhythm section, it often sounds like they were
sampled and looped. “Gonna Be Alright
(F.T.B.),” with its ever present refrain of “I’ll be okayeeeee,” sounds bland,
especially when it follows the mind expanding rap by Lupe Fiasco in “Always
Shine” that hints early in the album of greater things to come.
that slew of slow tracks, however, Stokely Williams stirs up the band with “Why
Do We Try.” Here it has a Stevie Wonder-esque vibe with some skittery drum work
and a solid verse-chorus layout. The final two tracks plunge the Experiment
into the rock catalog, one a brilliant idea, the other a misfire. David Bowie’s
“Letter to Hermione” gets a New Orleans
second line drum beat and a heartfelt vocal from Bilal, who turns this piece of
acoustic folk into a genuine ballad. The closing “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
doesn’t fare as well. For a song that was built on the idea of
tension-and-release, the Experiment delivers it with a mellow feeling that
almost sounds like it happened as a lark in the studio. Benjamin’s vocoder
vocals don’t help, nor does the Tourette’s Syndrome bass drum sample in the
first verse. It eventually kicks up the volume, but at seven minutes, it takes
too long and doesn’t really deliver what it set out to do.
choice of material on these last two tracks, especially the Bowie deep cut,
speaks to the depth and knowledge he
has as a musician, so it’s clear that he’s not merely trying to jump on some
bandwagon in hopes or reaping more commercial success. But Black Radio would have been more successful if the music used some
of jazz’s subtle spontaneity in the arrangements instead of satisfying itself
by going for the easy laidback vibe.
DOWNLOAD: “Always Shine,” “Letter to Hermione.” MIKE SHANLEY