Essays New albums

The Future of “Jazz”: Part One

The last month or so has seen three releases by artists who are sometimes held up as the “new thing” for jazz going forward. I’m talking about Robert Glasper, Vijay Iyer and Esperanza Spalding. I’ve been busy and haven’t had much of an opportunity to review things as they come, but with a bit of free time right now, I’d like to take a moment to talk about these releases and what they say about the state of the music. Each of these releases says, not always with the same amount of success, something different, and if we want to continue talking about ‘jazz’ as a community or type of music or even a group of related musics, we need to address what exactly is going on. First, a few words about these albums, starting with Glasper. I’ll cover Vijay and Esperanza and the general message in following posts.

Before I attempt to review Robert Glasper’s “Black Radio” I want to start by saying that Glasper is one of my favorites of the younger crowd of pianists and probably the young pianist whose future I most excitedly look forward to. I’ve seen the trio live and past albums have been great. And, on top of that, I think the melding of jazz and hip hop that he’s looking into is an exciting way to incorporate new elements of popular music culture into the framework of jazz. I say all this so that no one will get the wrong impression when I say that I found “Black Radio” incredibly disappointing.

The problem isn’t in concept, but in execution. Previous Glasper outings have proven that the Glasper formula can be very successful. I think “Double Booked” was a great album, particularly the first half on which the trio plays. Even the acoustic trio brings in the hip hop feel, particularly through the work of phenomenal drummer Chris Dave, which propels some of those tracks in a really exciting way. Their take on Monk’s ‘Think of One’ ranks easily as one of my favorite Monk takes; it has the loose feel that all great Monk requires, but somehow incorporates the hip hop groove. By comparison the work of the Robert Glasper experiment feels stunted and restrained. I see this as a product of two elements of the music.

First, the presence of so many guest artists. All but one of the tracks on the cd version of the album features a special guest vocalist or rapper (the itunes version adds another track without a guest, something of a take on “A Love Supreme”). On each of those tracks, the guest artist is really the main attraction, the centerpiece, with the Experiment as little more than a backing band. If you appreciate any of the featured rappers, you may very well enjoy the album, but if you were looking to appreciate Glasper’s considerable piano chops, you’ll likely be disappointed. I don’t have a problem with guest vocalists in concept, but beneath the rappers, the albums feels really constrained. I listened to the album all the way through the first time and was immediately struck by a thought I’ve never had after listening to a jazz album before: “where were the solos?” Repeated listening suggests that there really aren’t any improvised solos to speak of; one or two moments could be considered solos, but the fact that I had to search for them should impress on you how unnoticeable they are. As a result, the album feels pretty static to me. This really isn’t Glasper’s album, it’s the guests’ album. Now, I mean no disrespect to the guests and a handful of the tracks are perfectly enjoyable, indeed, Yasiin Bey’s title track is great, but I don’t find every track as satisfying. Erykah Badu’s take on ‘Afro Blue’ (you really have to use your imagine to recognize it as such) is kind of painful. On the whole, it’s not as satisfying to a listener who’s used to hearing people really dig into improvised solos.

The second problem I have is with the general atmosphere of the album. Every song is in a nearly identical mid/down tempo light groove. 50+ basically undifferentiable minutes of it before their version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” comes on, and while that does develop a very compelling groove towards the middle of the song, it starts with 3 minutes of the same undifferentiated fluff from the rest of the album. Maybe that’s harsh of me to say, but what holds up well over the course of a 5 minute song does not necessarily hold up well over the following fifty minutes. What I wouldn’t have given for just one real burner on the album…

“Black Radio” is not really a jazz album, per se, but a hip hop album of sorts. That is not a bad thing in itself, but, quite frankly, to my untrained ears, it isn’t even a particularly interesting hip hop album. For such a dynamic musician, it is a shockingly static album.

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