With his well-crafted new album, Black Radio (Blue Note), pianist Robert Glasper puts a spotlight on the reality of most contemporary jazz musicians: they’re not interested in playing just “jazz.” On most of his records he’s added flourishes of hip-hop and modern R&B, but this one goes all the way, with instrumental solos kept to a minimum and vocals on every cut—including contributions from Erykah Badu, Lupe Fiasco, Ledisi, and Yasin Bey (aka Mos Def). Still, Glasper’s interactions with his killer band the Experiment demonstrate a rapport and spontaneity they learned in jazz—and every member is just as fluent in soul. He spoke to Chicago pianist and organist Justin Dillard, who’s one of the brightest lights on the local scene whether leading his McCoy Tyner-esque trio or working hard as a ubiquitous sideman. The Robert Glasper Experiment plays at Double Door on Sat 3/10. This weekend Dillard debuts a quartet called Highered Current (with guitarist Bobby Broom) at Pete Miller’s in Evanston; that gig runs Thu 3/8 through Sun 3/11. —Peter Margasak
So the album’s been out for three or four days now. The response I’ve gotten from a lot of cats from the day it came out has been like, “Album of the Year” already. What was your vision for making this album? The vision was just to transport jazz into this present time, because it’s always looked at as a historic music and we were always playing homage to somebody. The mainstream people don’t know that jazz can be hip and cool and can incorporate things that are hip and new. Now it’s something that they like. So I wanted to do a record that basically just crossed over to the mainstream audience that gives them a taste of jazz. It’s not a straight-up jazz record, but it’s enough that you know it’s in there.
Do you see yourself as a bridge between the younger generation and the older generation? Yeah, I think so. When I play in Chicago, the age range is so vast. You got an 80-year-old white lady sitting next to a 16-year-old black kid. And that’s great, that’s definitely a bridge. I’m playing something that the 80-year-old white woman can identify with. At the same time I’m playing something the young 16-year-old black dude can identify with. At some point they’re bopping their heads together. That happens so often. I definitely think I’m a bridge.
Do you have anything specifically you want the younger generation to pay attention to? Because they’re often blamed for not knowing what real music is or putting out garbage, or whatever the case is. Luckily, now I’m an influence to a lot of young cats, so that’s kind of helping now—because there hasn’t been in a lot of years a cat that’s out doing something new, that young cats could look up to. A lot of cats were famous jazz musicians, but they weren’t doing much shit that was new. . . . What’s futuristic about it? New artists in other genres get a lot of praise, you know what I mean? And it seems like new artists in jazz don’t. . . . We don’t push our new artists. We put no money behind new artists. So it’s our own fault in a way. It’s totally our own fault. So talking about the younger cats, like I said, luckily I’m one of the cats they can look up to and say, “Hell, shoot, you can mix this with that and do this and this.”
Is there any piece of advice from one of your greatest influences that you’ve retained and you see replayed in your mind based on what you experience in this music and in life? Russell Malone was a big influence on me. When I was in college I toured with Russell for like two and a half years, and he always knew that I had that extra, hip, loved-to-play-other-kinds-of-shit in my music. He would come check me out—this was before I got signed, of course, so he was just coming to hear my band play, my little trio play, whenever I was doing stuff. But he always told me, “Yeah, motherfucker, do your shit, man. Do your shit. Don’t let nobody tell you not to do that shit. That shit is hip and I love that shit.” You know, nobody likes everything. Trane wasn’t liked from day one. People was running out the audience when he was playing. People used to call his music “fire alarm music,” because whenever he would start playing, people would run, literally. Also Cecil Taylor. Cecil lives around the corner from me. Like I literally go to the store and he’s buying tea. When he sees me, he stops and talks to me and talks to me literally for an hour. Sometimes I have to duck and try to get away. Cecil is so brilliant, dude.
Do you prefer any type of piano? Are you a Steinway guy? Are you a Yamaha? Are you a Fazioli guy? Technically I’m a Yamaha artist right now. But of course a great Steinway is always yummy to me. A nice warm Steinway kind of beats them all. So I love that. I love a nice, warm, fluffy Steinway.
Do you have a favorite track off the album that you just love playing? It depends on the day. It changes. I mean I love “The Consequences of Jealousy” with Meshell Ndegeocello. That just puts me in the zone, but it could be something different every day. I love “Afro Blue.” I love “Cherish.” I literally love every track off the record, depending on how I’m feeling.