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Keys to greatness

Robert Glasper debuts on a legendary label


Blue Note. The very words conjure up the essence of jazz. The label, founded in the 1939, was home to Art Blakey, Lee Morgan, Sonny Rollins, Jimmy Smith and so many other greats.

But in recent years, with record company mergers and tight times, few new jazz artists have been added to the label. That's why it was big news last year when pianist Robert Glasper, still in his 20s, was signed. It's the equivalent of a jazz knighthood.

"I feel blessed," says Glasper, who will play at the Rochester International Jazz Festival. "It's a great opportunity and a little bit of pressure. There's a million people who would love to be in my shoes right now. I'm definitely lucky. I don't take it for granted one bit."

He shouldn't. When the label hit gold (multi-platinum, actually) a few years ago with Norah Jones, jazz lovers hoped that the windfall brought in by her pop-leaning album would allow the label to invest in its roots. Instead Blue Note signed more pop acts: Van Morrison, Al Green and Anita Baker. Jazz signings involved already established figures Wynton Marsalis and Terence Blanchard. So jazz aficionados were anxious to hear Glasper, the first new jazz artist signed to Blue Note in years.

He did not disappoint. His debut, Canvas, more than fulfills the promise. The opening tune, "Rise And Shine," is a tour-de-force trio showcase with Glasper's beautifully crafted melodies propelled by Vicente Archer on bass and Damion Reid on drums. The title tune follows with the addition of excellent tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, a guest on two cuts. The album does not let up. Perhaps most impressive is the fact that all of the tunes are Glasper compositions, with the exception of Herbie Hancock's "Riot."

The final tune on Canvas, "I Remember," begins with a powerful female voice singing gospel-tinged blues. It's the voice of Kim Yvette Glasper, Glasper's mother who died two years ago. The album is dedicated to her with the words, "You're the reason I play."

"She was definitely a diva, if you will," says Glasper. "If she got on it, she owned it."

Glasper has Rochester roots on his mother's side. His grandfather owned E.L. Lawson Trucking Co. Glasper himself was born at StrongMemorialHospital. He visits Rochester every couple of years but he hasn't checked out the jazz scene; instead he spends time hanging out with his uncle and cousins. "I'll be at the house, eating," he laughs.

Glasper grew up inHouston where, it seems, he was friends with a large portion of the world's celebrity population. He went to high school with Beyoncé Knowles and his cousin, LeToyaLuckett, was also a member of Destiny's Child. He met Norah Jones at North Texas Jazz Camp. Pianist Jason Moran also attended his high school.

"Then you go to Houston and there's no jazz scene whatsoever. So where's it coming from? It was all from the school," he says, referring to the famous High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.

While in high school, Glasper honed his skills (and earned money) playing in churches. On Saturday morning he played for the Seventh-day Adventists, Sunday morning he played the Catholic service, and Sunday afternoon he backed up the Baptists.

He also listened to a lot of jazz (on those old Blue Note albums) and absorbed the influence of many great pianists. He still listens widely. "Right now my piano hero is Mulgrew Miller; he's my favorite cat," he says. But he tries not to sound like anyone.

"At any given moment I might sound like some people," he says. "At certain times I might try to sound like McCoy [Tyner] for a certain mood. But I wouldn't really pinpoint one cat. A lot of times people come to the show waiting for me to sound like that cat. They go with a preconceived idea, 'Well, they say he sounds like Keith Jarrett and Chick --- let's see.'"

One thing that sets Glasper apart from his contemporaries is his intimate knowledge of hip-hop. He has worked with artists like Mos Def and Q-Tip. But he doesn't want anyone to confuse his projects.

"I do play with those cats. People think my album, for some reason, is a hip-hop jazz album now. No, I play with those cats too, but this is a jazz record. A lot of people take it to an extreme, like 'hip-hop jazz artist Robert Glasper,' and when they hear me play they expect to hear a bunch of hip-hop stuff. No, I'm not doing that yet. I will put them together sooner or later. If you see one of my shows you'll hear some hip-hop overtones --- I might do an interlude or something like that --- but it's two totally different things."

Glasper will be playing straight-ahead jazz in Rochester. He is not enamored with attempts he's heard to combine the two forms.

"Hip-hop is so big right now that people who didn't want anything to do with hip-hop want to be hip-hop," he says. "So now you've got a lot of jazz cats who want to put hip-hop on their album and none of them really know how to do it. So it comes out horrible and corny. That's like a bunch of hip-hop cats trying to put out a jazz album. You know it's going to be horrible before you even hear it. You've got to study that shit. People think it's easy. No, it's not. It has it's own way of being hard."

He feels that he's in a unique position. "I can be a bridge between jazz and hip-hop because I do both and I know both worlds. And I will do it, but I want to do it the correct way."

The Robert Glasper Trio plays at Max of Eastman Place, 387 East Main Street, on Tuesday, June 12, at 6:15 and 10 p.m., as part of the Rochester International Jazz Festival. $15-$20, or free with ClubPass. www.rochesterjazz.com.

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