Miles Surely Smiles: Robert Glasper Reimagines the Prince of Darkness

Glasper’s piano puts Davis (below) in a new context.EXPAND
Glasper’s piano puts Davis (below) in a new context.
Don Q. Hannah

"Robert Glasper is a bad motherfucker," says Vince Wilburn Jr. "And he's a soulful motherfucker." He's joyfully describing the Grammy-winning pianist-composer known for his melding of jazz, r&b, and hip-hop, who has played with artists including the rapper Q-Tip and bassist and vocalist Meshell Ndegeocello, and at venues as varied as his mother's Baptist church in Houston, Bonnaroo, and, a few weeks ago, the East Room of the White House.

Wilburn should know about badness: He's the nephew of Miles Davis, who he drummed for in the Eighties; co-manager of his uncle's estate; and a producer of both the recent Don Cheadle biopic Miles Ahead and Glasper's forthcoming album, Everything's Beautiful.

The record, a smart collage-like reimagining of Davis's music, comes out May 27, a day after what would've been the jazz giant's ninetieth birthday. Although it's a separate project from the movie, it's a knowing complement to the soundtrack, which features beloved pieces such as "So What" and "Nefertiti," voiceovers of Cheadle as Davis, and four originals by Glasper, who also scored the film.

With Everything's Beautiful, Glasper has done something a bit different. "I didn't do it necessarily to appease the jazz audience, because that's preaching to the choir," he tells the Voice. The 38-year-old had full access to the Miles Davis vaults — heaven, in other words — and used samples in all sorts of creative ways, from his handclaps and whistles to his false starts, such as the one in "Blue in Green," which, with lyrics added by Phonte, formerly of the North Carolina hip-hop trio Little Brother, has been transformed into a new track called "Violet."

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"I tried to dig in there and use things that Miles didn't use," Glasper says. "He is bigger than the trumpet, which is why I try to put as many different parts of Miles in every song." (The album cover uses the same concept; the artist Francine Turk pulled in pieces of Davis's paintings to create a new work.)

Glasper also invited a wide variety of special guests, including those he knew were fans of "the chief," as Wilburn calls his uncle. Erykah Badu; Glasper's frequent collaborator and old New School buddy Bilal; Illa J, the younger brother of J. Dilla; and Davis alum John Scofield are all featured. Stevie Wonder even plays harmonica on one track. To emphasize Davis's global reach, Glasper also included British soul singer Laura Mvula and Aussie r&b quartet Hiatus Kaiyote. It's very much a continuum of the genre-free aesthetic Glasper honed on his albums Black Radio 1 and 2 and Black Radio Recovered: The Remix EP.

Miles Surely Smiles: Robert Glasper Reimagines the Prince of DarknessEXPAND
Don Hunstein/Sony BMG Entertainment

That non-doctrinaire approach is precisely what caught Wilburn's eye as he searched for the right musician to pull off the tribute album. "I'm always fighting what you call the jazz police," he says. Referring to Glasper, he adds, "Rob's going to approach music the way he wants to approach music. I trust him, we as a family trusted him, and he came with the goods, he came with the shit."

There's nothing quite like the voice of Miles himself, and Glasper ingeniously opens the record with the rasp of god razzing the drummer Joe Chambers in a 1969 studio session: "Hey Joe, Joe Chambers, can you play — unless you want to walk around and look important — can you play some kind of figure that you can keep playing through that? Something like..." Glasper then drops in some electric piano chords and, a few beats later, a drum machine. Then Miles again: "That's good, Joe, 'cause it doesn't break, it doesn't sound corny. And Herbie, whenever you feel the mood is going to be broken, just play a run or something to close the gap." Then this: "I'm paying you to play the fucking piece."

Glasper samples Miles in all his forms: ballbreaker, teacher, bandleader, composer. Finally, Miles tells the assembled, "You don't know what the organ is. You've never seen it before. It looks strange. Watch this...everything's beautiful."

"Like Miles, Rob has the ability — in his simplicity, and how he's figured out how to approach music — that, for the regular person, it's easy to absorb the vitamins that he puts out," says Keyon Harrold, a trumpeter who has worked with Jay Z, Rihanna, Eminem, Maxwell, and D'Angelo, and who first met Glasper at a jazz camp in Vail, Colorado, twenty years ago. "But when you break it down, you see how complex it is."

Harrold, who is not on Everything's Beautiful but plays on the Miles Ahead soundtrack's four original songs (and was asked to play trumpet for Cheadle's Davis in the movie, which he calls "the ultimate honor"), says Glasper's new album is "the essence of pushing the music forward and keeping the legacy alive."

It's a sturdy legacy, though one that can't be taken for granted, either. Are younger people as aware of Davis as they should be? "I'd say no," replies the 35-year-old Harrold.

Glasper agrees. "His music isn't as popular as it was," he says. "He was a big icon when he was alive, but the music industry changed so much, most young people don't even know who Prince was." He hopes his approach in Everything's Beautiful might reach some new listeners. "It sounds like an r&b/hip-hop album," he says. "You don't realize you're listening to a Miles Davis composition, and that's what I wanted to do, get a non-jazz-head to check it out and give them something they can identify with."

And what would the chief think? Says Wilburn, "I think he would be diggin' it like a motherfucker."

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