Sometimes Creative Self-Indulgence Really Does Pay Off

  Album: Covered
  Artists: The Robert Glasper Trio (pianist Robert Glasper, bassist Vicente Archer, and drummer Damion Reid)

“I missed the piano. I didn’t want to go back to trio and just play a bunch of standards or original jazz compositions, because then I would lose the big fan base I just built from mainstream R&B. So I decided on a happy medium, returning to the piano trio but doing cover songs . . .”
~Robert Glasper

“I feel proud to be brown every day.”
~Covered, “I’m Dying of Thirst”

If your favourite scenes from the Peanuts holiday specials involved Schroeder channelling Vince Guaraldi on his toy piano, this album will make you go all giddy.

Jazz pianist Robert Glasper manages something that’s much harder than it looks; he brings the sweet, healing sounds of post-rock ambience, the passion of soul, the rebellious fun of hip-hop, the virility of rhythm and blues, and the cleverness of his own original musical experiments while remaining tethered to the intellectual rigour—and thankfully the swing—of traditional jazz.

As always, Glasper stears clear of formulas and predictability. At first listen this album sounds like an abrupt departure from his last two projects, the Grammy-winning Black Radio albums; it’s more conventional, but still not quite what you’d expect of a jazz piano master who’s suddenly decided to lay aside years of musical exploration to return to “serious” jazz by covering old tunes for the first time.

And yet these covers aren’t just another set of standards (the only jazz standard on the album is “Stella By Starlight”) or even famous pop tunes—rather they’re songs that struck Robert’s fancy and that he wanted to interpret. I confess that I hadn’t heard of most of these songs, confirming my hunch that no record execs “helped” Robert pick winning tunes.

But he’s still experimenting—or, should I say, creating original sounds (which happens when experimentation succeeds). The rapid-fire notes of the his 13-minute “In Case You Forgot” (which appeared in an earlier version on Black Radio 2) remind you of chipmunks chattering to each other, but is surprisingly interrupted every so often by poignant musical phrases from a Cyndi Lauper song. The audience (the album was recorded live before an intimate group of fans) is smitten.

But what does this album mean? It’s been criticised for being too calm and “passive” compared to the Black Radio albums, but I actually took a pass on those two albums when they came out and fell in love with this one; if only because it’s the more mindful, and that is, after all, what this column’s all about.

Glasper’s social conscience makes him lean toward some expression of historical pain, and yet Covered seems to do so in such a sensitive and dignified way that the listener feels centred, balanced, and ready to be restored after all the insanity.

Which is not to say that Glasper has abdicated his role as a conduit for social enlightenment. On one on the tracks Harry Belafonte discusses the reality of being a black man who succeeded in America and yet still carries the weight of racism. On Kendrick Lamar’s “I’m Dying of Thirst” several children, including Glasper’s son Riley, read off the names of victims of racially motivated violence as the trio plays repeats a series of sad yet serene chords.

High points: the deeply tender and life-affirming cover of Radiohead’s “Reckoning,” the cover of Joni Mitchel’s “Barangrill” that brings out all the tenderness latent in that tune, and Musiq Soulchild’s woman-affirming “So Beautiful.” But it’s really all-of-a-piece, one of those albums that should be enjoyed in its entirety.

Covered manifests eight of the Mindful Bard’s criteria for music well worth a listen.

• It’s authentic, original, and delightful.
• It harmoniously unites art with social action, saving me from both seclusion in an ivory tower and slavery to someone else’s political agenda.
• It provides respite from a cruel world, a respite enabling me to renew myself for a return to mindful artistic endeavor.
• It’s about attainment of the true self.
• It inspires an awareness of the sanctity of creation.
• It displays an engagement with and compassionate response to suffering.
• It renews my enthusiasm for positive social action.
• It makes me appreciate that life is a complex and rare phenomena, making living a unique opportunity.

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