Free to play all of who they are

Boston Globe, August 23, 2009

For years they’ve feigned split personalities, building their name and platform in jazz with straight-ahead trios or quartets, while nurturing their generation’s funk roots and mash-up aesthetic through side projects or hip-hop moonlighting gigs.

But new albums out this week from vibraphonist Stefon Harris and pianist Robert Glasper, both among the wave of premier bandleaders born in the 1970s, suggest that jazz’s 30-somethings are finding the confidence and the market space to make high-profile, major-label work that draws on hip-hop, funk, and electronica. And all this not in order to probe new frontiers but simply to express who they are.

Harris, 36, who grew up in Albany, N.Y., and came to jazz after classical training, is putting out “Urbanus,” the second release of his Blackout project, five years after its debut. The disc embodies each member’s life and style: There is a go-go track, for instance, supplied by bassist Ben Williams and keyboardist Marc Cary and reflecting their Washington, D.C., roots. Saxophonist Casey Benjamin also plays vocoder, the synthetic-voice device seldom heard in jazz since late-’70s Herbie Hancock, and more often associated with hip-hop, Euro dance, and sci-fi flicks.

Glasper, 30, takes a daring approach on his record “Double-Booked.” The first half is in regular trio format, straight-ahead albeit full of hip-hop-inspired arrangements. The second half features the Robert Glasper Experiment, a free-form entity where top rappers and soul folks tend to turn up.

Glasper, who was raised in Houston, is music director for Mos Def and Q-Tip, and also works with the Roots and Maxwell. Mos and singer Bilal appear here, and Roots drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson supplies a voice-mail interlude (another comes from trumpeter Terence Blanchard). Benjamin and his vocoder are on the Experiment, too, and one of his songs, “For You,” co-written by Sameer Gupta, made it onto both records.

In separate interviews, Harris and Glasper express a shared feeling that a moment has come.

“This is just the time for it,” Glasper says on the phone. “We’re ready musically, and we need it now more than ever.”

Partly, he’s referring to the credibility these young artists have achieved, which allows them to put out music that the genre-boundary police might otherwise dismiss. “I couldn’t do it out of nowhere, bring the Experiment out too soon,” he says. “I had to establish myself first as a jazz pianist, and get that respect. Otherwise, very fast, you’ll get pegged as a hip-hop pianist.”

But it’s also a moment for jazz, in its constant quest for focus and renewal. “Our audience is old,” Glasper says. “Nine times out of 10, if a 20-year-old is listening to jazz, it’s a musician. Jazz is so hidden, it’s like a museum, with dinosaurs. Everything you see is in black and white.”

Over lunch in Newark, Harris makes an even starker assessment of jazz today. There is no shortage of musicians, he says; in fact, there may be too many. The question is what experience – cultural, social, political – jazz is expressing.

“It’s not just about loving chords and scales,” Harris says. “This is our life, our culture, and our history, and we are putting it forward because we love this music. As an African-American, this is my cultural heritage. This is the music of my people, and I feel a great sense of pressure and a real honor to do my part to continue this legacy.”

When he looks to the past, Harris says, it is less as a jazz preservationist than it is to understand what made it click: “What was it that drew people to the music? What made it special? Let’s really examine that. It’s not about style – we don’t want to just go back and play bebop. The real tradition of jazz is about the here and now. It’s about spontaneity, and about being the voice of the people.”

Harris says he welcomes anyone to play jazz, as long as what they play conveys the authenticity of their personal experience. For his part, he says, that means the urban, black American experience, with the traits that his Blackout mates share, from the church tradition of music and testimonial, to the reality of police harassment. “I guarantee you get the five of us together, and all of us have been pulled out of cars,” he says.

From this stems the entire program of “Urbanus”: the album title (“Urban Us”) and its musical commitments, from go-go, marching band, and church to the spectacular reworking of Stevie Wonder’s “They Won’t Go (When I Go)” that includes Benjamin’s vocoder and a guest flute and clarinet section.

Harris’s “Urbanus” is eclectic, but its pacing and feel are still those of a classic jazz record. Glasper’s “Double-Booked,” with its framing conceit, two-part structure, rap interlude, and general ornamentation, is more of a self-conscious hybrid, reflecting the influence on Glasper of seminal hip-hop producers like his friend the late J Dilla. That applies not just to the Experiment tracks but also to the trio material.

“I love to take a few chords and loop them so it sounds exactly like a sample,” Glasper says. “It just gets you into a zone, and once you set that palette you can work stuff on top of it. It’s very rare to listen to a jazz record and something just settles – including things that are sexy.”

The Harris and Glasper generation was barely on the scene the last time jazz and hip-hop attempted earnest conversation. Between 1993 and 1995 a mini-wave of projects appeared, led by some big figures: saxophonists Greg Osby, Steve Coleman, and Branford Marsalis. The respected MC Guru launched his series of “Jazzmatazz” compilations.

Those records never really stuck. On some, stilted, second-tier rapping jarred against high-grade musicianship. On others, pleasant-enough lyrics and beats never quite made room for the kind of probing, improvising playing that brings complexity or lift. And so the moment passed.

Now, in a music landscape upended by downloads, iPods, and sampling, the encounter – at least as reflected on these new records – feels less forced, more open and organic. Benjamin is optimistic that the jazz and hip-hop audiences are overlapping more than ever. He recalls a recent set with Glasper at New York’s Village Vanguard: “I looked out and it was the crowd you would see at a Roots jam,” he says.

It may be, as Harris suggests, that the woes of the music industry overall have, paradoxically, liberated musicians to make more personal music rather than hew to genre. It may be, as well, that the centrifugal unraveling of hip-hop has helped to fertilize jazz as it has other music – in a kind of creative decay.

In the end, though, none of this would be possible without a new generation of players who feel, simply, that their time has come. As Benjamin puts it: “This is our generation, and our interpretation of what jazz is.”

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