Robert Glasper Experiment
Jazz and hip-hop meet in brazen piano experiments
Interview Extras and Outtakes
By Ken Micallef
Did all the vocalists track live with the band?
Keith Lewis: Only Badu tracked later, all the others tracked in studio live with band. Musiq Soulchild and Christef Mishell recorded in LA a month after tracks recorded. Mehsell flew her track in and they played to her vocal in the studio.
How did you write for the vocalists?
Glasper: I wrote the music with these vocalists in mind. Then I chose the cover songs specifically for each vocalist. I co-wrote with them, so I would come up with chord changes or a skeleton for a song and then I would send them the piano part, and they would write to it. Then when we all got to the studio we’d make it the actual song.
Most of these artists I’ve already worked with so I know their vibe. And I can just hear their voices over something. I am pretty good at that. Some things didn’t work, I had to write another song and send it to them. Then the artist would like it. But sometimes they weren’t feeling it and I had to write another one.
How do you go about getting a good piano sound?
Glasper: Depends on the room and on the microphones and the piano, how big or small it is. A lot comes with that. For the most part I played one piano, then on ‘Afro Blue’ I played a different piano. Technically I am sponsored by Yamaha but they’ve done nothing for me. So literally I am just on their website. My brand name of choice is a Steinway. If you choose the best of the best, it’s a Steinway. Yamahas are very bright sounding pianos. They record bright as well. Steinways are by nature darker sounding pianos. Steinways are handmade. Most pianos are made in a factory by machines. But Steinways are literally handmade. That is how they maintain the integrity of their instrument.
How do you typically record?
Glasper: I don’t like to play until I am ready. We chill at the studio. We get enough days to where we’re not rushed for time. We play a song, then we’ll wait 45 minutes to an hour before the next one. We drink, get something to eat, chill, until we really feel the next song. Then we go in and one take. That comes from playing together a lot. I try to always record after I tour. Then you get all the musical snacks that you’ve developed on the tour. And you really know the songs. When you do a whole record of new songs and you’re sight reading in the studio the vibe goes out the window because you are just trying to learn the song. But if you know the songs and you’re comfortable you don’t have to concentrate, you just the music be itself.
Do you have specifics re recording?
Glasper: I don’t like a lot of room sound. I like everybody to be isolated for the most part. I like the sound to be isolated, especially when it comes to doing electric bass. At any given time the way we play is very spontaneous and I could drop out at a moment’s notice. Or the band could drop out and it’s just me playing. If that happens, there’s no bleed from any other instrument, if Chris drops his stick, or Derek hits something, that won’t be in the piano sound. If that happens we can’t clean it up so we keep everything isolated.
Has your recording process changed?
Glasper: Yes, my process ….I used to start in the morning. But you don’t really start playing jazz until after 8. By then, your body is in the right state. So how can you record jazz in the morning? Your body is not really comfortable. It’s not what you normally do. I get sounds early, but we don’t start recording midday. Then the bulk of it happens at night when your body is naturally used to playing. I am not a morning person so the cats get there around 1 but we don’t record til 3.
First takes for the instrumentals?
Glasper: Yes, and the vocals are mostly first takes as well. With Roberts’ sessions, a lot of the song are all in the same session, like I didn’t stop them then open up another session. Everybody’s on their instrument, they’re always jamming. And playing so when a song stops they begin playing something. It needs to be going and on all the time. If you listen to Cherish the Day, it doesn’t start at the beginning of the song. They’re jamming and catching a vibe on it, and the bass player wasn’t plugged in. I hit record as soon as they started the song. I have the red button on all the time. You need that with these guys cause everything is spontaneous.
What was your sonic goal for Black Radio?
Keith Lewis: Working on this project was a dream come true because everyone involved is a master of their instrument. It was important to me to capture the organic nature of the performances since it all happened at once ( vocals and intruments) the red light was on nearly at all times to make sure any spontaneous jams that arose were recorded.
I did the electronic cats on his last record. This one he went to Threshold in LA. I wanted it to have that warm thick sound like the 70s records. And for the drums to be able to smack like any hip hop record. I wouldn’t say it’s a different approach, just that their musical selections were different from the last record.
Chris Dave is an innovative drummer.
Keith Lewis: Chris Dave is one of the first drummers to play the way that Dilla programmed his beats. The way the timing is shifting, and it’s not a normal quantized thing. It’s definitely become part of their musical idiom and the way they play and think. Robert definitely does that. They are playing it straight down.