Filming the closing sequence to Don Cheadle’s directorial debut Miles Ahead reminds keyboardist, composer, and bandleader Robert Glasper of how his devotion to music has come full circle. The Houston native and Blue Note Records artist experienced a surreal moment, jamming on-stage with an all-star lineup consisting of generation-spanning talents Gary Clark, Jr., Esperanza Spalding, Wayne Shorter, Antonio Sanchez, Pharoahe Monch, Herbie Hancock and Cheadle himself, disguised as the iconic Miles Davis.
Glasper’s vivid memories of performing as part of that epic finale are heightened when coupled with his recollections of connecting closely with the legendary Hancock over three consecutive days. The Grammy-winning instrumentalist responsible for Black Radio and its sequel Black Radio 2 became the co-producer of Hancock’s upcoming LP. An imaginative student of music known to blend together jazz, R&B and hip-hop, Glasper, who scored the original music for Miles Ahead, is privileged to have absorbed the wealth of knowledge and wisdom the veteran musician imparted to him.
“I’m getting a masterclass everyday,” shares Glasper backstage at Atlanta’s Wolf Creek Amphitheater immediately following his electric fusion quartet The Robert Glasper Experiment performing at the second ATL Soul Life Music Fest. “There are so many things you learn. He doesn’t even know how much knowledge he’s dropping just by how he’s talking.”
Anytime Glasper visited Hancock’s home to work, the New School University alumnus would spent endless hours with the fourteen-time Grammy-winning musical genius chatting about a variety of music-related topics. It wasn’t uncommon for producer Terrace Martin and bassist Thundercat to sit in on Glasper and Hancock’s sacred recording sessions and pow-wows. Hancock’s perspectives and insights, Glasper says, completely changed his approach to and understanding of the piano.
Typically seated inclined on-stage behind a tower consisting of a Fender Rhodes piano, a clavichord and a Yamaha Motif, Glasper declares that watching a humbled Hancock play his original compositions in Miles Ahead is “the greatest thing musically he’s ever accomplished.” “[Herbie] is a master,” continues a leisurely Glasper responding with allegro and arpeggio-like phrases. “He’s so open-minded, which is so cool. He allows me, Terrace and Thundercat to really just shape and mold. It’s been amazing.”
Glasper’s co-production on Davis’s 11-track posthumous album Everything’s Beautiful immortalizes and modernizes the groundbreaking trumpeter’s legacy beyond jazz. In a move akin to discovering the musical holy grail, Glasper was granted special access to Davis’ session tapes from Sony’s vaults, repurposing Davis’ handclaps, piano loops, raspy voiceovers, clear-cut instructions, whistles and studio vibe over contemporary rhythms, melodies, and grooves.
Clocking in at 47 minutes, Everything’s Beautiful includes stellar contributions from an all-star cast comprised of Bilal, Erykah Badu, Phonte, Hiatus Kaiyote, Laura Mvula, KING, Ledisi, John Scofield, Illa J, Georgia Ann Muldrow, and Stevie Wonder. The main objective, Glasper says chased by a breath of laughter, was to intentionally refrain from grounding the project in an overwhelming amount of Davis’s trumpet playing.
“I wanted people to have to force themselves to look at something else,” says the now amusing, grazioso-toned harmonizer wearing a graphic tee of the album’s Basquiat-styled graphics. “Throughout [Davis’] years of playing, he played less and less, so that was my process. He’d probably co-produce this project and play some keys.”
Glasper, now segueing into speaking adagio-like sprinkled with some sparse accents, continues, “I wanted it to be accessible to people now. I didn’t want to do the same thing where every song is trumpet. That’s been done before. I wanted to show a different avenue.”
Glasper’s involvement in composing additional music for Miles Ahead miraculously caught the ear of late musical virtuoso Prince. His Royal Badness expressed interest in also contributing original music and possibly playing guitar along with the ensemble musicians in Miles Ahead’s final scene. Unfortunately, these moments never came to fruition.
Glasper actually recorded a cover of Prince’s 1987 socially conscious hit “Sign o’ the Times,” originally set to appear on The Robert Glasper Trio’s 2015 live recording Covered. Prince’s estate wouldn’t clear Glasper’s rendition, so the versatile pianist ended up posting his rendition to SoundCloud two days prior to performing at ATL Soul Life Music Fest. The former accompanist for Maxwell, Kanye West, Q-Tip, and Mos Def ended up using the remake’s similar chords on his Harry Belafonte-featured “Got Over.”
Reiterating how blessed he is to constantly be in the company of extraordinary talent, Glasper illuminates anytime he hears his musical peers tell stories about Prince’s live repertoires and marathon performances. One in particular was a sporadic show in London featuring The Purple One playing Chick Corea tunes. Glasper admits he still hasn’t mourned Prince’s untimely death out of disbelief.
“It’s so weird and not real to me,” declares Glasper. “Prince has been a long inspiration to me my whole life. What I love about Prince, which is what I also love about Miles, is they’re unapologetically themselves all the time. Prince was such a master of innovation being himself. He didn’t care, and he really loved music.”
Considering the climate of music Glasper continues to flourish in, the mirthful musician is grateful for all of the acclaim and continued success. He acknowledges his musical ancestors like Hancock, Patrice Rushen, and the late George Duke as his inspiration for continuing to use pianos and keyboards as gateways for pursuing other areas of music, composition, and production.
Insisting that his ability to morph and transcend is by coincidence, an extremely modest Glasper reiterates his appreciation for his fans and musical peers caring about his abilities. “What I’m doing now as a piano player isn’t supposed to really be happening these days,” proclaims Glasper.
“Now it’s really not the thing to do. I have so many fans and people that have been following and believing in me, so thank you all for caring.”
Robert Glasper’s Top Five Albums (At the Moment):
- God’s Property | God’s Property from Kirk Franklin’s Nu Nation (1997) – “That’s very nostalgic for me because all of my friends are on it.”
- Michael Jackson | Off the Wall (1979)
- Keith Jarrett | Still Live featuring Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette (1986)
- Kendrick Lamar | To Pimp a Butterfly (2015) – “I’ve been wearing that joint out, even though I’m on it. It’s not just because I’m on it. If I wasn’t on it, I’d still be listening to it. It was so big for the decade, for the moment of music, for jazz, for everything. I listen to that joint all of the time.”
- Slum Village | Fantastic, Vol. 2 (2000)