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Robert Glasper Experiment: Black Radio

Mark F. Turner By

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Robert Glasper's love for the music of his upbringing is deep. The sounds of hip hop, R&B, and urban soul music are intrinsically linked to a brilliant young jazz pianist who has gigged with jazz icons, headlined his own bands, and released a number of noteworthy recordings, including 2007's In My Element (Bluenote) and 2009's Double Booked (EMI). His music has borne the fruits of this passion; he's as comfortable with "J Dilla" as he is with John Coltrane. Some have questioned whether Glasper is abandoning his jazz roots and selling out to popular music. Yet as if to quote "Damn the critics, full steam ahead..." Glasper continues to emphatically prove his point with the superb and fully realized Black Radio.

This project features one of the pianist's working bands, the Robert Glasper Experiment, augmented by a starred list of names who are well recognized in and outside of mainstream music: Erykah Badu, Bilal and MeShell NdegeOcello, to name a few. The threads are jazz but the woven tapestry is comprised of fresh urban soul music that rocks, bounces, and chills, caring little about labels. "Lift Off" sets up the program, beckoning to the sounds of a late night DJ, followed by the crooning of Badu's sultry voice in "Afro Blue."

This release illuminates a continued legacy of gifted artists. Lalah Hathaway (daughter of the great soul singer Donny Hathaway) provides silky lyrics in "Cherish The Day," a tune that juxtaposes the singer's voice with electronics and tight beats. On the finger snapping "Ah Yeah," drummer Chris Dave drives incisive beats against a chorus of gorgeous voices while Glasper provides his usual gossamer pianism. The emerging bassist Derrick Hodge holds the bottom in check while the multi-talented Casey Benjamin plays a variety of reeds and electronic instruments throughout. The tracks are uplifting and stimulating. Rapper Lupe Fiasco dishes out cerebral sustenance on "Always Shine" and underground hip hop activist Yasiin Bey's (aka Mos Def) freestyle improvisation on the title cut articulates the title's theme, an analogy between music and an aircraft's "black box": real music is crashed tested.

Black Radio is not overtly meant to be a commentary on today's Black music industry though it does represent a vivid document of talented artists who are pursuing the art-form on their own terms. From the sampled conversation of artists discussing the music environment to the "call and response" vocal arrangements with natural and processed voices, the music is ripe with artistic liberties. With the Robert Glasper Experiment, there are no boundaries. To top it off, they even provide a unique rendition of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," proving that even grunge can groove with a little jazz and soul added.

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