I don’t listen to as much jazz as I’d like to or should. Perhaps because it’s a very involving music. At least for me it is. It makes me sit up and listen with an alertness that I don’t always display for most other genres – there just seems to be so much going on. Maybe I’m just conditioned to behaving that way with jazz. I listen, I feel enriched, I feel drained, but sadly, that exhaustion seems to dictate the frequency with which I pop a jazz CD into the player. But when I do play a jazz recording, it’s almost always a very rewarding experience as it has been with The Robert Glasper Experiment’s 2012 release ‘Black Radio’.
‘Black Radio’ pushes the boundaries of the genre and at the same tries to reach out to a new audience used to other forms of music. Every song but one has the Experiment, comprising pianist Robert Glasper, drummer Chris Dave, Casey Benjamin on wind instruments and bassist Derrick Hodge, playing with an artist usually associated with another genre, fusing jazz very smoothly with hip-hop, R&B/soul and just that bit of rock. The album starts with the appropriately titled ‘Lift Off’ featuring Shafiq Hussain who talk-sings his way through an introduction of the band and the album. And the others that follow keep the album soaring. There are three very impressive interpretations showcased in Erykah Badu’s soul-filled take on Cuban jazz in ‘Afro Blue’, Lalah Hathaway’s fabulous singing and rich presentation of Sade’s ‘Cherish The Day’ and Bilal’s more nuanced phrasing (and he does that without going all dramatic) on David Bowie’s ‘Letter To Hermione’. Bilal features again as he and Lupe Fiasco add colours of soul and rap to ‘Always Shine’. Me’shell Ndegeocello and the Experiment create a haunting, shifting, moody atmosphere on ‘The Consequences Of Jealousy’ and to my mind, a sense of a person reaching for something just out of grasp. Two of my favourite tracks on the album feature some frenetic rhythm sections on ‘Why Do We Try’ with Stockley and the title track which has Yasiin Bey (the musician/actor formerly known as Mos Def) at his rapid-fire best. The most interesting piece on the record though is the fourth interpretive piece on it and one which has no collaborator. This will likely have Nirvana fans screaming murder. But the cool, neo-jazz, distorted, vocorder-embellished reworking of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ has grown on me with each listening.
Ventures such as this often fall into a compromise pitfall dug by populism, but ‘Black Radio’ succeeds in its experiment without losing jazz’s essential character. The quartet weaves intricate and complex rhythms and harmonies into each of the 13 songs here while letting its collaborators do what they do best. Yet at no time does it seem contrived or disjointed. So-called purists I’m sure will not be thrilled with this but jazz has always been progressive. In time, I’m certain ‘Black Radio’ will be looked upon as one of jazz’s finest.