It’s a ballsy move: an artist who wins Grammys for music that stresses soul vocals, hip-hop beats and R&B grooves follows up that massive victory by returning to the lyric-less improvs of a jazz trio. But hey – at this point it should be obvious that Robert Glasper likes to mess with the norm. Skirting the predictable appeals to him. So Covered, cut with his wonderfully pliable rhythm section of bassist Vincente Archer and drummer Damion Reid, shelves the pop-tinged performances of his celebrated Black Radio discs. Instead we get a poignant program of (very) modern swing by one of jazz’s most astute piano trios.
The 37-year-old bandleader has said he cut this live session because he missed playing acoustic piano. Our boon. As this romp through these “tunes from my iPod” indicates, he’s a middle-aged ace whose catholic interests help contour an imposing technique that’s able to woo with Dilla-slanted jitters, Pullen-esque pummeling or Hancock-like romance. As Covered shifts gears, Glasper not only paints a personal portrait of these tunes, but reveals the rich articulation of his group. He moves from the firm pulse of Radiohead’s “Reckoner” to the breezy lyricism of Joni Mitchell’s “Barangrill” to a prancing spin on Musiq Soulchild’s “So Beautiful,” giving each the thoughtful touch it deserves.
One of the trio’s victories is connecting the dots between airy forays and pointed intensity. Maybe the rococo skittishness of the “Stella By Starlight” update (the only overt “trad” track here) tells the best story. One moment it’s defined by the manic flapping of wings, the next it’s gliding away gracefully to find a new adventure. Ultimately the program leads to a mix of protest and pride. Glasper helped Kendrick Lamar craft the explosive To Pimp a Butterfly around the same time Covered was being cut in Hollywood. The trio’s take of the Compton MC’s “I’m Dying of Thirst” (from good kid, m.A.A.d city) features children (including Glasper’s son) honoring the African American victims of recent killings, from Trayvon Martin to Eric Garner – an emotional narrative indeed. “I’m thinking about what color I am, but I have to be myself,” explains one child at the fade, “you have to be happy with who you are.” If jazz is meant to reflect its times, Glasper speaks volumes.