Robert Glasper Experiment
Released September 16, 2016
The Guardian Highest Rated Jazz Albums of All Time
After dominating the jazz charts, winning a couple R&B Grammys, and recording with everyone from Erykah Badu to Norah Jones to Snoop Dogg, what’s next for a band like the Robert Glasper Experiment? When the group’s leader scores a Miles Davis film, plays keys all over albums from Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly to Anderson .Paak’s Malibu to Maxwell’s blackSUMMERS’night, and is currently collaborating on forthcoming albums from Herbie Hancock, Common, and Mac Miller, what can you do to level up? “You do you,” says Glasper with a chuckle. “People need to hear what the Experiment sounds like, just us—know what our vibe is and can be.”
On ArtScience, the Experiment sounds like a bit of everything that’s vibrant and challenging and great about music, woven into a billowing fabric of jazz, funk, soul, rock, hip-hop, blues, disco, electronic, and pop—if the Black Radio albums evoked the crash-proof airplane “black box” in their title, this one’s a parachute carrying us to unimagined vistas. But to fully understand what this quartet’s accomplished, you need to know some things. This is the first Experiment LP where all members write and produce, and the first with no guest vocalists. That means everyone—sax man and vocalist Casey Benjamin, bassist Derrick Hodge, drummer Mark Colenburg, and Glasper himself—sings. It also means you’re hearing the freest version of the Experiment yet.
That’s by design, of course. “I wanted to do this record in a place where we don’t know a lot of people,” says Glasper. “In New York or LA, it’d end up being a hang, so we locked ourselves in a studio in New Orleans for two weeks and wrote the whole thing there. Our only inspiration was: ‘Fuck it. Let’s do what we feel.’” They ate good food, did good work, and threw a cheap, intimate pop-up show for the heads. It was “like camp,” and with that intense focus, ArtScience became a thing of huge breadth.
There’s Benjamin’s disco-funk seduction “Day to Day,” and the Hodge-led “Find You,” where drums snap like firecrackers as moods and genres flit past rapidly. The Colenburg co-write “In My Mind” marries cascades of brass and Rhodes to melodies that keep shifting. Glasper’s own “Let’s Fall in Love” offers minimal R&B set to trap percussion and a syrupy groove, which highlights something else: Even as the band slides in and out of styles and eras, there’s something perfectly “now” about their use of Autotune, which grew from Glasper’s long-running affinity with the vocoder.
An unintended theme arose too: relationships—the ups, the downs, and, especially, the part where you make amends. “Thinkin Bout You” is a tribute to the ones who stay home while the Experiment’s touring. “You and Me” is a bona fide slow jam. And “Hurry Slowly,” swirls Steely Dan, Stevie Wonder, and Radiohead into a slinky tribute to love’s odd time signatures. Their cover of Human League’s classic mea culpa “Human” fits the theme. “We’ve all been there,” Glasper laughs.
Family and friends figure into ArtScience in other ways too. One of the interludes features Glasper’s son. “He’s speaking his mind,” says the bandleader. “He was 5 and the Michael Brown case came on the news and he started going off.” Indeed, the boy, unprompted, speaks for a lot of us: “It’s not fair! We should let other people live! … Let’s try to make the polices better … like real polices that help. No gun shooting!” Album opener “This Is Not Fear” comes from a similar place. The Experiment was in New Orleans when they heard about Yasiin Bey’s arrest in South Africa, which sparked a talk about how authorities treat black men. For this one, they didn’t need words.
“It comes in on fast swing, then transcends into a beat as you hear our voices going ‘hmm-mmm,’ like a hymnal,” says Glasper. “In other words, jazz into hip-hop is then to now, and us singing spirituals to get through some shit ain’t nothing new.”
Balancing art and science is something Glasper’s been working at his entire career—cutting that sheer musical ability with the sort of songwriting that simply resonates with the heart. Crossing over isn’t easy, but it’s been his thing for as long as he can remember. His mother was music director at their Houston church, where Glasper would first play keys for a crowd. She also sang jazz and blues at clubs by night, and brought the child (he’d eventually accompany her). That mixture became his sonic bedrock, and it went with him to the city’s esteemed High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, and on to the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York. By 2005, when Glasper signed with Blue Note, he’d become an accomplished sideman to Christian McBride, Kenny Garrett, Roy Hargrove, and more.
That’s when he made the decision. “No more side gigs,” says Glasper. “I’ll do my own thing in jazz, and if I play for anyone else it’ll be a different genre because eventually I want to make albums in those genres.” So he worked as music director for Mos Def and Bilal, hit the studio with Q-Tip, Kanye West, and Erykah Badu, and did a world tour with Maxwell, all while releasing jazz LPs that drew steady acclaim. His worlds merged on the first full Experiment album, 2012’s Black Radio, which scored a Top Jazz Albums No. 1 and won the year’s Best R&B Album Grammy. The Experiment didn’t just cross over; they revitalized their genre. Black Radio 2 (2013) brought even more thrilling cameos, and another Grammy.
In 2015, Glasper reset with Covered, recorded live in Capitol Studios with his original acoustic trio featuring bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Damion Reid, but his choice in source material was key: John Legend, Joni Mitchell, Radiohead, and Kendrick Lamar to name a few. He also composed for Don Cheadle’s Miles Ahead film, plus reinterpreted Davis’ catalog on Everything Is Beautiful, which came out earlier in 2016. Which brings us back to the beginning. When you’ve earned your bona fides, sure, it makes sense to follow your muse. But along the way, with so many potential paths to take—unplugged or electric, guests or no, jazz or hip-hop or R&B or fusion—how does Glasper always manage to take the listener on exactly the right adventure for exactly the right moment? The answer, it turns out, is a little bit of art and a little bit of science. “I feel like I lick my finger and put it in the air, and see which way the wind is blowing,” he says. And when he gets a feel for what’s going on, he knows: “Hmm, that’s what’s needed in the world right now.”
1. This Is Not Fear (Casey Benjamin / Mark Colenburg / Robert Glasper / Derrick Hodge) 3:18
2. Thinkin Bout You (Robert Glasper / Derrick Hodge) 3:12
3. Day to Day (Casey Benjamin) 5:24
4. No One Like You (Casey Benjamin / Robert Glasper) 9:18
5. You and Me (Casey Benjamin / Mark Colenburg / Robert Glasper / Derrick Hodge) 4:38
6. Tell Me a Bedtime Story (Herbie Hancock) 7:05
7. Find You (Casey Benjamin / Mark Colenburg / Robert Glasper / Derrick Hodge) 6:46
8. In My Mind (Mark Colenburg / Robert Glasper) 6:07
9. Hurry Slowly (Casey Benjamin) 5:36
10. Written in Stone (Casey Benjamin / Robert Glasper / Derrick Hodge) 5:01
11. Let’s Fall in Love (Derrick Hodge / Matt Vorzimer) 7:33
12. Human (Terry Lewis) 6:36
Robert Glasper: piano, keyboards, organ [Rhodes], vocals
Derrick Hodge: bass, vocals
Casey Benjamin: keyboards, alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, vocoder, vocals
Mark Colenburg: drums, percussion
Michael Severson: guitar
Riley Glasper: speaker
Jahi Sundance: whistle, turntables
Recorded at The Parior Recording Studio; New Orleans, LA
Produced by Robert Glasper, Casey Benjamin, Mark Colenburg and Derrick Hodge
Executive-Producer: Nicole Hegeman, Vincent Bennett
Engineer (Assistant): Frankie Mariano, Matt Grondin, Nick Guttmann
Mastered by Chris Athens
Mixed by Qmillion
Recorded by Keith Lewis
After the unqualified critical, chart, sales, and Grammy successes of the Robert Glasper Experiment’s two Black Radio albums, remixes, and singles, the need to explore was requisite. ArtScience is a reflection of the qualities and musical interests that brought this band together. Their seamless meld of contemporary jazz, hip-hop, neo-soul, pop, and rock has influenced a host of artists following in their wake. This album marks a new modus operandi: it’s the first time the band has written and produced collectively. (Even the two covers here were arranged by the unit.) It’s also a first in that there are no guest vocal cameos. The set was recorded in New Orleans over two weeks apart from the endless touring and hustling solo careers of its members. While press materials advertise this as a “free” RGE album, its sounds are completely rooted in the group’s signature. “This Is Not Fear” spends the first minute and a half engaged in aggressive post-bop improvisation; it shapeshifts into a hip-hop rhythm with sampled member introductions. The jazz angle is tight; one wishes this aspect of the track would have developed further. Glasper takes the vocal on the slippery “Thinkin’ About You,” the first of several songs about relationships here. He’s not the best singer, but the dreamy neo-soul cum jazz groove more than compensates. “Day to Day” is smooth postmodern disco with a bumping bassline by Derrick Hodge. “No One Like You,” at over nine minutes, is the Glasper Experiment at their most expansive, melding their various individual strengths in crisscrossing several genres. Benjamin’s excellent sopraono saxophone solo is icing on the cake. The arrangement of Herbie Hancock’s “Tell Me a Bedtime Story” is closer to Quincy Jones’ 1978 pop-soul version; it’s not as lush, but Glasper delivers a gorgeous Rhodes solo. “Find You,” with its skittering meld of EDM, funk, and prog rock, is classic Derrick Hodge — it could easily have appeared on his The Second. He takes the lead vocal while guest Mike Severson adds a smoking guitar break amid a labyrinth of changes. The band gets back on the jazz tip for “In My Mind,” containing a shifting harmonic center and knotty syncopation driven by Mark Colenburg’s breaks. “Hurry Slowly’ balances Steely Dan’s intricate, infectious melodic sensibilities with spacy indie pop. “Written in Stone” (also with Severson) weaves together Bowie-esque pop, new wave, and spacy funk. The set closes with a thoroughly reimagined (and not tongue-in-cheek) neo-soul read of Human League’s “Human,” executed in grand RGE style with stacked production layers and taut, snapping hip-hop breaks by Colenburg. ArtScience is an excellent step forward. The range of material covers an expansive creative terrain–often mirroring the experimental directions the band pursues live–without sacrificing accessibility. While it’s another example of RGE’s particular brand musical synthesis or “fusion,” it presents a new framework for future exploration and discovery.
Thom Jurek (Allmusic)