While reviews for actor/director Don Cheadle’s new Miles Davis biopic Miles Ahead have been mixed, two things have been universally praised: How Cheadle captured the physical and vocal essence of the legendary trumpet player and — of course — the music.
In addition to utilizing actual recorded work by Miles Davis, the soundtrack features a score by composer/pianist (and Houston native) Robert Glasper. And it’s thanks to Twitter that this fortuitous collaboration even occurred.
“Don tweeted me and said that he liked my album In My Element. That started us tweeting back and forth, and direct-messaging, and then texting. And then he said he was thinking of having me score the film,” Glasper says.
After Cheadle consulted with Vince Wilburn, co-executor of the Davis estate, and jazz legend Herbie Hancock — who gave him the thumbs-up — Glasper was offered the gig.
“And Herbie said he wanted be involved with me," gushes Glasper. "It [rolled] from there. I have never scored a movie before. I was excited and terrified at the same time!”
Glasper pops up onscreen behind a piano at the movie’s end, during a live concert sequence that features Cheadle-as-Miles playing alongside a supergroup that includes Wayne Shorter on sax and Hancock on keyboards (both of whom were Davis sidemen), Gary Clark Jr. on guitar, Esperanza Spalding on bass and Antonio Sanchez on drums. While Cheadle studied trumpet for six years, it’s Kevon Harrold who actually plays on the non-Miles soundtrack and concert.
And while it’s a surprise “real world” coda to the film, it does make the point that Glasper and Cheadle wanted to. “It shows that metaphorically, Miles is still here and his music still means something," says Glasper. "And it also showed who he might be playing with if he were alive today."
Glasper’s admiration and respect for Davis’s work and personality, he says, still resonate today 25 years after his death. “What appeals to me about Miles was his willingness to say ‘screw you’ to everyone else! And that he totally did,” Glasper reflects.
“And the way he hopped through genres through the decades," he continues. "He didn’t care what people thought when he was doing something new and they had a problem with it. He wanted to make social music for his time. And that’s what I’m trying to mirror in my own career now. Music has to move with you.”
In fact, those very attributes inspired Glasper to put together a completely separate record coming out this month, Everything’s Beautiful. It features “reimagined” versions of Davis tunes that combine samples of both released and unreleased music from the trumpeter (as well as Davis’s trademark raspy voice), Glasper’s new music, and contributions from guest singers, rappers and instrumentalists.
Glasper says Sony let him "go wild" through the vaults at Columbia, Davis's longtime recording home. Those guests run the gamut from familiar names (Stevie Wonder, Erykah Badu, John Scofield); not-so-familiar (Illa J, Phonte, KING, Georgia Ann Muldrow); and Glasper favorite Bilal.
“They first wanted to do a remix album for Miles's 90th birthday, but I wanted to have more creative control and get into that vault and get some of the multi tracks to make new compositions and show the influence of Miles,” Glasper offers.
“And yes, I had to talk to each one of them first to see if they had real love for Miles!" he adds. "If somebody inspires you, you don't just want to do what they did; you want to create something new. That’s more personal. And for the most part, I let each artist choose which song they wanted to do. And there weren’t a lot of the obvious, popular Miles songs on the CD.”
After all the dust from the Davis project settles, Glasper doesn’t have a whole lot of spare time on his calendar. He is co-producing Herbie Hancock’s next album, as well as one for rapper Common. He is in demand for collaborations with artists across genres. He also has two groups of his own, the traditional-minded Robert Glasper Trio and the more avant-garde Robert Glasper Experiment, both with recording and touring schedules.
It’s with the Experiment that Glasper really fuses his love for jazz, R&B and hip-hop into one band, as well as a voice for his more political and social-issue music, including the Black Lives Matter movement.
The Experiment’s 2013 record Black Radio took home the Grammy for Best R&B album. And the Trio’s Covered record from last year features a version of Kendrick Lamar’s “I’m Dying of Thirst.” At the end, children’s voices (including that of Glasper’s own five-year-old son) repeat the names of minority victims of police actions and shootings that have become synonymous with the movement, along with commentary.
“It makes a difference when you hear kids saying those names…it hits you differently. I let him just talk and used his words, like at the end when he says how he loves being brown,” Glasper says.
Asked if it frustrates him, as an instrumentalist, that others always have to voice his message, Glasper lets out a laugh. “No, because I can’t sing! And the message I would be sending would not get across with my voice. Believe me!”
In Texas, the Robert Glasper Experiment will play a special show on May 21, 6 p.m., at Beaumont's Antioch Missionary Baptist Church. Glasper attended Houston's High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, but left for New York immediately after graduation.
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So what is a must-stop when he comes back home? Well, it has nothing at all to do with music.
“I have to go to Frenchy’s Chicken," he says. "That’s number one. I go from the airport directly to Frenchy’s on Scott Street.
"Then there’s family, they come in second!” he laughs. “That’s because I have to bring them a big-ass thing of Frenchy’s. And I better walk in there with enough for everybody!”
Miles Ahead is now playing at Edwards Greenway Grand Palace Stadium 24; AMC Studio 30; Edwards Houston Marq*E; Sundance Houston; and AMC Loews Fountains 18 in Stafford. See theater websites for show times.