Album Review: Black Radio, Robert Glasper Experiment, 2012

Robert Glasper is a jazz pianist who, with this outing, experiments with the fusion of jazz, hip-hop, and R&B. The experimentation in itself is not groundbreaking but the outcome is brilliant. Artists like Guru and Q-Tip have played in this space for some time but the freshness that Glasper brings is grounded in his piano accompaniments and tastefully chosen collaborations.

If rain were able to play the piano, it would sound like Robert Glasper. His style is unique, his fingers falling in succession on the keys, playing melodies in arpeggio. Listen to “Downtime” from his previous release, Double Booked, for a nice showcase of his style.

It’s that style that subtly forms a latticework of piano sounds around the vastly different and joyful tracks on Black Radio. Even before hearing the album, I was giddy to see this list of collaborators: Erykah Badu, Chrisette Michelle, Bilal, Mos Def, KING, and Ledisi all in one place!

The tracks themselves offer a range of style and even genre that keeps the record fresh on every listen. “Afro Blue” is classic Badu. “Move Love,” with KING, is a sublime groove rightfully featuring the beautiful vocals of that US-based trio. Perhaps the surprise of the lot is “Cherish the Day” a cover of a Sade song performed by Glasper and Lalah Hathaway. As a discerning Sade fan, I was skeptical. But this version retains the sparseness of Sade’s original while enhancing it tastefully with Hathaway’s take on the vocals and Glasper’s arrangement.

The one disappointment is the title track, which has moments of niceness but struggles to find a comfortable pairing of Mos Def’s rapping style with Glasper’s accompaniment. The final track, a lengthy cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is also hit and miss. Nirvana’s charms never resonated with me personally so this final criticism may more be my own bias then a comment on the track. It is admittedly an original take where Glasper pulls off an extended use of a vocoder. For this, he gets points for channelling Herbie Hancock.

Overall, this is a precious collection of well thought-through collaborations, original musicianship, and great melodies. It is substantial, which for a fusion project, is saying something.

(at press, this album is pending release on Feb 28, 2012)

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