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One could certainly consider Houston-born pianist Robert Glasper one of the most versatile musicians of his generation. Equally comfortable playing both straight-ahead and experimental jazz as well as R&B and various other genres, Glasper is frequently booked to perform at two venues on the same night.
That's the feeling he was going for on his latest CD, and the reason for its title, Double Booked (Blue Note). Glasper displays both his jazz and R&B sides on the disc, and welcomes frequent collaborators Bilal and Mos Def — two artists not frequently associated with jazz — for guest appearances.
"I was trying to find a way to put my two bands on the record without being too random," Glasper explains over the phone from Blue Note's New York offices. "I realized that a lot of the time I'll actually do both things in one night — like I was playing at the Jazz Vanguard (a famed New York venue) with my trio and then I was doing a late night somewhere else with my experimental band, so I wanted to translate that to the record, because that's what I'm doing right now."
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Glasper decided to split the record in half because he didn't know of any other artists who had taken the same approach.
"Most people, when they have a more acoustic kind of career and decide to do something more electric, they do a whole different album," he says. "But I wanted to do it all together because I don't know of any other musicians who have actually done that, but [that] is who I am right now, doing both styles."
On the cover of Double Booked, Glasper exits a cab with a cell phone to his ear. The CD opens with a voice mail from trumpeter Terence Blanchard, concerned that Glasper is playing at two different clubs on the same night, followed by a live recording of the uptempo "No Worries" with the pianist's trio.
After six tracks, including a beautiful rendition of Thelonious Monk's "Think of One," Glasper introduces his experimental side with guest Mos Def, who sings trough a Vocoder and raps on "4 Eva."
Glasper has included a Herbie Hancock composition on all of his records so far — something he says is not exactly intentional. This time, on Double Booked's experimental half, the tune is "Butterfly."
"I love Herbie, but it's funny because I wasn't such a hardcore fan of his music until after college," he admits. "I never actually planned to have a Herbie song on every one of my albums, but it just happened that way. During the period of time when I was recording that album, I was playing 'Butterfly' live all the time, so that felt good so we put it on the record.
"He's one of my favorite composers [and] musicians," Glasper adds. "He's one of those guys who straddles all areas of fusion, playing with Miles [Davis], doing acoustic stuff but also playing some funky material as well. He's definitely a mentor for us."
Part of the new generation of jazz musicians to emerge in recent years including guitarist Lionel Loueke and pianists Hiromi Uehara and Eldar Djangirov, among others, Glasper was born and raised in Missouri City and won a full scholarship to New York City's New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. Though he's remained a New Yorker ever since, Glasper says his Texas roots give his playing a "country feel."
"I'm from Texas," he says. "When I moved to New York, people said I have a country twang when they hear me talk, and then when I play I have that kind of Bruce Hornsby, Elton John — all those piano players — influence [that] is sort of evident in my playing style."
If performing multiple gigs in different venues on a single night weren't enough to keep him out of trouble, Glasper is currently on the road backing Maxwell, the neo-soul superstar currently supporting his first release in eight years, the widely acclaimed BLACKsummer's Night.
Glasper did not perform on BLACKsummer's, but he got involved with the tour through Dave, who did participate in the recording sessions.
"Once it was time to get a band together for the road, Chris mentioned my name," he says. "Maxwell had already come to the trio show and checked out the band before, and he was like, 'Yes, I'd like Robert to go.' That was pretty much it — he told me right away."
Glasper explains that although his trio won't play any jazz during the singer's shows, fans shouldn't expect to hear carbon copies of the songs on the disc.
"It's all Maxwell's stuff, but he lets us put our vibe on it," he says. "Maxwell is a very musical cat, and he respects the music and the musician and everyone's point of view. He doesn't hold us back from doing too much, and that's a good thing.
"If I were to hear something live that is just like the record, I could have stayed home," he adds with a chuckle. "I would want to feel like I'm seeing something special, because I'm paying $150 a seat, you know?"