Robert Glasper has caused a stir with his impressive musicianship and with his spiky and vocal articulation of wishing to develop music that is free to move beyond the aesthetic values imposed by the (often self-appointed) guardians of a specific musical culture. As a Jazz musician Glasper is keenly aware of the cultural, historical and ethnically informed narratives that weave through the Jazz tradition, and is equally aware of a purist strain in Jazz practice and interpretation that seeks to preserve the artform against what are viewed as the 'the barbarian hordes'. Glasper has, however, recognised that there are multiple musical traditions operating which form a part of the same ethnic and culturally inspired experience, and is clearly comfortable in attempting to merge what some consider the 'high art' of Jazz (thereby ignoring key components informing the art form) with popular vernacular and folk inspired traditions, of which Hip Hop offers the most recent example.
This is not to suggest that 'Black Radio' should be seen as a pluralist all encompassing rejection of purist aesthetic celebration as the liner notes (written by Angelika Beener) speak of a tradition that has informed and constantly revitalised popular musical culture, whilst also being appropriated by elements existing within the same popular framework, both within and outside the ethnic and socio-culture that she references. According to Beener, 'Black Radio' offers an example to take forward, '...the solution is not to keep reaching behind us for authenticity...but (the past) cannot be the sole definer of legitimacy. Modernism is now...when minstrelsy fades, and monotony jades, there will still be Black Radio'. So joined by the core of Derrick Hodge, Casey Benjamin and Chris Dave, 'Black Music' has been framed and offered as a correlative to much of what is 'out there' now, a celebration of inclusive excellence that recognises the past whilst looking to the future. The question is, with such an ideologically informed narrative apparently informing the work, does the music fulfil the promise?
The album opens with 'Lift Off' (featuring Shafiq Husayn), replete with vocoder, scratchin' and swirling piano work, the spoken word introduction calls for the listener to bring their ears and soul to the 'experimentation for meditation' and to 'rock on' (in a clear echo of the MC driven Hip Hop tradition). Erykah Badu provides the vocals for the Mongo Santamaria written 'Afro Blue' (famously recorded by John Coltrane), an oft covered work that provides an early qualitative touchstone, with Badu providing a typically assured yet restrained performance. Lalah Hathaway takes up the lead for 'Cherish The Day', emerging over a wonderful hovering piano and drum. Her voice is clear, powerful yet controlled, accompanied by a vocoder that hints back at the work of Herbie Hancock and Stevie Wonder. 'Always Shine' features the talents of Lupe Fiasco and Bilal, an individual with a clear musical affinity with Glapser, having previously appeared on 'Double Booked' in 2009. This is first track to obviously fuse Jazz with Hip Hop, and this will promote wildly varying responses, according to the tastes (and musical experiences) of the listener. 'Always Shine' allows Ledisi to take centre stage, a woman with an authentic and clearly attested involvement with Jazz, and the possessor of a voice that has a purity of tone that retains the power to soar and stun in equal measure. KING consists of three female vocalists who have been promoted in the UK by Gilles Peterson (appearing most recently on 'Brownswood Bubblers Seven') and on UK soul stations (including Starpoint Radio). Their blend of voices is beguiling and enticing, and their appearance here will hopefully alert music fans to their talent ahead of the release of their album.
Musiq Soulchild and Chrisette Michele duet on 'Ah Yeah', a standard groove, before Meshell Ndegeocello emerges with 'The Consequences Of Jealousy', offering her 'sweet devotion' whilst emploring someone not to 'waste her time', a vocal providing a performance that moves through a sustained supporting musical texture. Stokley's 'Why Do We Try' features a propulsive skittering edged drum beat that is percussive and driving, joined by a piano that skirts and spins. The title track 'Black Radio' is driven by a vocal provided by Mos Def, referencing significant lyrical markers drawn from within Hip Hop ('Radio Sucker Never Play Me' (Chuck D) for example). It is undoubtedly significant that the title track is a fusion of Hip Hop (the spoken word) and Jazz. Bilal features again on a cover of David Bowie's 'Hermione', entirely in keeping with his free ranging and experimental approach to music. 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' offers an interesting take on Nirvana's song, itself often interpreted as a paen to revolution and internal conflict. Here is is driven by the ethereal vocoder, shifting before settling to a coda that sees Hathaway providing vocal accompaniment. The album concludes with 'Fever' (featuring Hindi Zahra), enjoying acclaim as the voice behind 'Handmade'.
So. Do you buy?
The fact of the inclusion of Beener's notes would suggest that there is a relationship between her narrative and that of the music, offering a way forward, incorporating and embodying an excellence that remains a transcendental value, however specifically informed by race, society and culture. This is quite a burden for any music to bear, and when considered against what is already 'out there' (within and outside the musical traditions which it references) 'Black Radio' fares reasonably well, although it does not quite offer the dramatic 'pinnacle of inventiveness' Beener might suggest. Jazz musicians have long sought to move outside and beyond parameters, indeed the music is itself such a process (as evidenced by Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock), despite the highly contestable assertions of the 'Jazz traditionalists' (one thinks particularly here of Wynton Marsalis et al).
There is a youthful swagger to the project, perhaps reflected in the liner notes ('Indeed, young lads...indeed'), and the fusion of Soul and Jazz is impressive, but that might seem unsurprising given the quality of the vocalists involved (Badu, Bilal, Hathaway etc). The two noted fusions with Hip Hop perhaps fare less well, and this certainly isn't the first time that a Jazz musician has looked to Hip Hop for renewed inspiration ( consider for example Herbie Hancock (most notably with 'Future Shock') and the UK's Courtney Pine). Moreover, one has to wonder at the artists who are not included in the project - Jill Scott is perhaps the most glaring omission - if this is indeed to be read as a mainfesto of contemporary excellence in black music.
Setting this aside there is no denying that it compares well with much of the music that is accorded the label of contemporary black music, and Glasper is certainly an artist and musician likely to continue producing interesting and stimulating music, building upon this and 'Double Booked'. Just ignore the hyperbole and settle down, and most importantly, engage with the music.
An 8/10. Very good and worthy of your consideration.