First Impressions: Robert Glasper Trio, “Covered”

coveredWhat do you do when you reconvene your acoustic jazz trio following an eight-year hiatus from the recording studio—an eight-year hiatus in which you won a few Grammys in the category of R&B? Or, to be blunter: How’s a cat like Robert Glasper supposed to return to his roots after two well-received Black Radio installments, and carry as many of his newfound R&B and soul fans as possible along for the ride? These questions are not merely implicit to Covered but explicit, stated by Glapser in the spoken introduction to this live-in-the-studio set. His answer—to focus the program on covers of pop, soul, R&B, and rap songs—is offered as though a revelation, when in fact it’s really a fairly common trope in jazz circles, departing from standards to bring contemporary fare into the songbook. The presence of the spoken-word introduction really serves only to illustrate Glasper’s slant toward seriousness, his insistence that all of his records have concepts to give shape and context to the tunes; frankly, not all of the songs here are well-known—hip-hop fans will recognize the Kendrick Lamar cover, and like seemingly all jazz musicians in the 21st Century Glapser is compelled to include a Radiohead jam—but others are a little more leftfield, including a composition from Black Radio collaborator Bilal and a Macy Gray tune that’s only known to folks who bought the deluxe edition of Black Radio 2. As for the music: There’s more than 70 minutes of it—including spoken intros to a few songs—and it’s all tastefully and beautifully rendered, if not especially swinging. Glasper and his Trio favor a more ponderous, meditative quality to their work, and over the course of an hour-plus that has the effect of making the experience a little sleepy, a shade too ambient, a touch too academic. Generally, the songs do not betray their R&B or pop roots. On a song like Radiohead’s “Reckoner,” which is a little bit drifting and sleepy even on In Rainbows, what stands out the most is the cling and clatter of the percussion; then again, Glasper’s dramatic and percussive soloing on “In Case You Forgot” has the studio audience rightly on their feet, and, ironically enough, the set’s lone standard—“Stella by Starlight”—stands out for its graceful, Bill Evans-styled romance. Musiq Soulchild shows up in ghostly sample form on “So Beautiful” to provide a bit of Black Radio-style shading, though it feels a little forced in this context. It’s more than atoned for on the shortest song here and the true highlight, a new, original composition called “Got Over”—featuring a rousing spoken word performance from Harry Belafonte, encapsulating the #blacklivesmatter movement by voicing dignity on behalf of those who’ve been denied it.

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