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I never expected the Robert Glasper Experiment’s project Black Radio to be nominated for a Grammy in the R&B category.  Everyone knew that the project was special: its blend of generic codes from jazz, R&B, hip-hop, gospel and rock defied industry logic in bold ways.  Comprised of musicians who’ve made names for themselves in jazz but who capably crisscross boundaries, the group has, perhaps, forecast the gradual demise of traditional categories. By winning the Grammy—something I first learned from Angelica Beener’s (writer of the project’s liner notes)Facebook post because it wasn’t televised, Black Radio’s mix was celebrated as a true hybrid.  When the CD first dropped, it inspired lots of digital ink to be spilled, including my own.  We circle back this week by reposting my three-part essay series about the importance of the Black Radio project.  And we offer a hearty congratulations to the band.  –The Editor.

“Changing the game,” exclaimed the press photographer to one of the fans at Robert Glasper’s recent standing-room-only appearance at World Café Live, Philadelphia.   “Yeah, no doubt,” the middle-aged man shot back in agreement.  The room was filled with an interracial, inter-generational crowd of listeners enveloped in the mesh of sound worlds being served up with both commitment and ease.

The show was part of the promotional tour for Glasper’s new release Black Radio (Blue Note).   As New York Times music critic Nate Chinen wrote recently it’s “the rare album of its kind that doesn’t feel strained by compromise or plagued by problems of translation.”  That’s quite a feat given that jazz and hip-hop have supposedly operated under different social contracts since the emergence of hip-hop as a musical commodity in the 1980s and the contemporaneous “young lions” movement that shot Wynton Marsalis’ generation to jazz stardom.

Robert Glasper’s Black Radio Project, live in Philadelphia

Public discourse pitted the neo-classicist hard bop “analogue nation” against the sample-filled digital soundscapes of hip-hop producers (they’re not even “real” musicians) and their spiting, rhyming counterparts (they’re really not musicians). Although many people could actually find something to praise or disdain in both streams it was easy to find oneself wedged between the polarizing aesthetic/political rhetoric.  That was then.

Changes in the way the “recording” revenue stream of the music industry operates have opened up new creative opportunities for artists.  And musicians are taking them.  Talented engineers and producers—and high quality recording opportunities—abound in all areas of the country.  Many musicians have become equally as astute in engineering, composition and performance, as well as in marketing and promotions.  The clever ones are pushing out the box and crafting projects that are conceptually adventurous.  Some of them purposely share their work around social media sites before they actually “drop.”  Thus, a new kind of art world is emerging in which the shots are not solely being called by “the suits.” Musical collectives that work across the genres lines (those imaginary sonic boundaries that exclude more than they invite) are creating new audience alliances as well.

Although he has a Blue Note record deal, Glasper is on the avant-garde of this new wave.

That is not to say that one cannot find sonic precursors that equally portray what makes Black Radio so appealing and timely.  Chinen mentions a few milestone performers in this regardMiles Davis, Guru, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and Roy Hargrove.  Each produced projects that blended elements of jazz with that of other populist styles.  We can name others.  Let’s push the list back a bit to include someone like Ramsey Lewis who has continued to build a vibrant career sliding easily around the jazz/pop continuum.  And, of course, the clear-headed and creative optimism of Herbie Hancock should certainly count as an important inspiration both in spirit and in technical execution.

MeShell Ndegeocello: Musician Supreme

And we must not forget the important women contributors to this aesthetic sensibility—an oversight that happens a lot.  Gospel great Elbernita “Twinkie” Clark’s songwriting, singing, and instrumental work set that genre on an unapologetic and sonically ecumenical path.  Patrice Rushen’s work as a songwriter, arranger, vocalist, and keyboardist boasted an eclecticism that surely provided neo-soul rhythm tracks some of its harmonic approach.  Bassist and songwriter Meshell Ndegeocello’s virtuosity in funk, soul, and jazz—and the singular and courageous way she combines them—must be considered a particularly salient and challenging guidepost.

But what’s going on in the Black Radio project that makes me wonder if we are in the midst of a post-genre moment, a realignment of the traditional social contracts governing music creation, dissemination, and consumption in the industry?  I’ve experienced this project as a subject of written criticism and promotion, as a live performance event, and as a recording.  There’s a lot going on that deserves attention.

Black Radio’s sense of aesthetic balance—of getting it just right—may be derived, in my view, from two provocative musical choices: (1) a self-conscious foregrounding of digital technology in the soundscape that includes tricked out mixes and effects, among other techniques; and (2) a harmonic palette drawn from the progressive post-bop vocabulary—close, infectious harmonies that pivot around common tones and shifting tonal centers.  The songs are otherwise characterized by the careful alignment of sonic symbols from across the historical black popular music soundscape.

Check back in for Part II when I’ll show how these techniques, among many others,  animate the songs on this great project.

Dr. Guy