Erykah Badu, Stevie Wonder and others help boundary-crossing jazz pianist Robert Glasper reimagine the music of Miles Davis
Pianist Robert Glasper has spent the past ten years decorously disassembling whatever walls folk may imagine separate the romantic funk of modern R&B from the abstract truths and monster chops of modern jazz. This not-having-two-effs-to-give quality alone renders Glasper a qualified son of Miles Davis and the ideal cat to aid actor/director/screenwriter/producer Don Cheadle in scoring his film Miles Ahead. That occasion also provided Glasper the opportunity to perform a double boo ya ka – i.e. produce an album of recast Miles material by his super friends and fellow Miles-philes Erykah Badu, Bilal, Ledisis, Laura Mvula, Georgia Ann Muldrow, Bilal, Hiatus Kiyote, Miles Davis band veteran John Scofield. and this sweet sexagenarian harmonica player from Detroit whose nom de guerre is ‘Wonder’
Like any vital art form that’s been around for a couple of centuries jazz has occasionally threatened to self-fossilize and commit career suicide. A few forward thinking youth-minded contrarians usually arrive to save jazz from standing strong stuck in the mud while the world races by. In the late-Sixties Miles Davis made electrically enhanced jazz mad popular with hippies and hippies alike via the still totally rad and krunk-gnostic Bitches Brew. Thus liberating his artform from the plantation bondage of smoky dives and 3-sets a night-7-days-a-week chicken feed gigs. Miles actually hated the term ”jazz”. Like most of the legends who labored under the lash of the j-word he considered it synonymous with the n-word, but Bitches transcended the jazz word and gave his musician-devotees access to the popular stages and college venues frequented by rock and funk bands in the Seventies.
Glasper primarily functions as a discrete overlord on Everything’s Beautiful, sometimes even as an absentee one. As he explains in his extensive liner notes the process of assembly was organic, guided by voices, suggestions, serendipity, happenstance and on one occasion crate-digging and vino. Glasper revealed in conversation that a smattering of evenings imbibing at fellow-Texan Badu’s house found them scouring her vintage collection of Davis vinyl for options. This spirit-driven path led to the singer emphatically telling Glasper she wanted honor the fabled Prince of Darkness with ”a bossa”. Miles nephew Vince Wilbunr suggested ‘Maiyisha ” a mid-tempo ballad from 1972s Get Up With It, and viola.
Columbia Records gave Glasper and his crew full access to Davis original recordings which include his raspy chatter– detailed, ribald cantankerous instruction to musicians between takes. Thus does the gravelly ghost of the most instantly recognizable speaking and instrumental voices in American music after Louis Armstrong’s ground the sounds you hear on Everything’sBeautiful. Badu’s bossa is an expectantly chill, seductive and scrumptious contribution to Everything’s relaxed, sensual cruise trip.
Vocalist/keyboardist/composer Georgia Ann Muldrow’s revamping of ”Milestones” provides the collection with it’s boldest make-over however. The original hails from the 1950s hard bop stage of Davis evolution, when knotty, driving horn parts were all the rage. Muldrow, an esoteric cult favorite of obscure beatmakers everywhere (and our vote for ‘The Alice Coltrane of Hiphop Composition’) tames the beast’s boplexity with ethereal keys, scatting voices, subaquatic bass tones, cyborg swing beats, and Glasper’s off-the-meatrack piano improv skills (the producer’s only solo btw on the entire 11 track set).
Davis preferred the term ”social music” to jazz but the cruelly dissenting and dissonant beauty of his Seventies music was how anti-social so many diehard acoustic jazz fans and R&B programmers found hisSeventies morph into a hardwired acid-funk rapscallion. The collaboration between former Miles guitarist Scofiled and the dazzling Ledisi on “I’m Leaving You,” revives the rambunctious and buck wild Davis of his On The Corner album — a.k.a. the straw that broke all Davis true blue bebop fans minds, spines and hearts in 1972, as well as providing proof positive of a key Glasper observation: that Miles was not only forecasting’ hip hop but making hip hop before there was hip hop. ”
The album’s closing track, “Right On Brotha,” produced by DJ Spinna and keyboard player Chris Rob. It delightfully gives late night club currency to two exceptionally gorgeous melodies,one legendary, the other a rescue from the mothball wing of the Davis canon. The latter is a sampling of an untitled and near-forgotten a capella trumpet interlude last heard on Davis Tribute To Jack Johnson soundtrack. The former involved deploying Stevie Wonder’s harmonica breathe new life into Wayne Shorter’s haughty and haunting and very well-known ”Nefertiti” (FYI: ‘Nefertiti’ is wrongly attributed to Davis in the Miles Ahead movie credits, as is, on Miles Ahead and Everything’s Beautiful, Bill Evans’ expropriated co-composition ‘Blue In Green’, a controversial and reportedly not unprecedented instance of Davis sticking it to the sideman like he was The Man.)
Glasper and his confreres have used Davis inspiration to craft a moving and misteroiso assemblage that true to the living Davis desires refuses any hong or scent of museum entombment. The off the beaten path song and singer/rapper selections sidestep the typical kid gloves treatment most jazz cats lay on Miles material and the skin graft with beats-the-kids-like approach of other jazz-meets-hip hop ventures. Our compliments to the chefs and their curator.