A Grammy and Emmy-winning artist is about to dazzle Alexandria, Virginia.
Acclaimed pianist Robert Glasper will perform at The Birchmere on Nov. 7.
“Before I do shows, I never premeditate all the songs because I like to read the crowd,” Glasper told WTOP. “Sometimes I go out there knowing the first song or maybe the first two songs, but other than that, I like to give each audience its own specific show.”
It marks his first time back to the D.C. area since the March on Washington on Aug. 28, where he performed alongside Derrick Hodge and George Clinton.
“It was amazing,” Glasper said. “It was an honor to play there knowing the history of the march. That’s where Martin Luther King did his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. Seeing all of the people there united, it just felt like I was a part of history.”
Born in Houston, Texas, in 1978, Glasper grew up in a musical family.
“My mom was a singer,” Glasper said. “She would sing at an R&B club, at a funk club, at a jazz club, she even sang country music. Literally one day a week she would sing at a barn. … On Sundays she was the minister of music at the church, so in my house you never knew what my mom was going to be playing. … She was a musical mutt.”
He attended a performing arts high school and applied to college music programs.
“I started taking it seriously in 11th grade,” Glasper said. “I actually got a full scholarship to New School and a full scholarship to The Berkeley College of Music in 11th grade. Neither one of those schools you need an SAT, so I never took the SAT!”
He ultimately chose New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York City, where he met neo-soul singer Bilal Oliver, his collaborator for the rest of his career.
“We met the first day of school,” Glasper said. “They call all the freshmen into a room and call you up on stage one by one to form a band. They’ll call a random drummer, a random bass player, a random singer. … They happened to call me and Bilal up on stage together, and I always make the joke, we haven’t left the stage [since].”
Pretty soon, they found themselves in a legit recording studio making magic.
“One of our teachers had a friend that had a studio,” Glasper said. “We ended up going to this guy’s house all the time, Aaron Comess, he was the drummer for the Spin Doctors. So we recorded Bilal’s entire demo there and at the end of freshman year, Bilal got signed for a deal with Interscope Records, Jimmy Iovine signed him.”
They went on tour together, opening up for Erykah Badu, Common and The Roots.
“That’s where my career really began with straddling both lines,” Glasper said. “Being on the road with Bilal, I’m meeting all the hip-hop cats and solo R&B cats. … At the same time, I was heavy on the jazz scene, so I’m on tour with Roy Hargrove, Christian McBride, Russell Malone, Terence Blanchard and Kenny Garrett.”
Eventually, Glasper released his own albums: “Mood” (2002), “Canvas” (2005), “In My Element” (2007), “Double-Booked” (2009) and “Black Radio” (2013), which won the Grammy for Best R&B Album. It featured performances by Lupe Fiasco, Erykah Badu and Lalah Hathaway, as well as unique covers of David Bowie and Nirvana.
“That was a nightmare,” Glasper said. “It’s an album with 12 special guests. … I actually canceled the album two or three times because I couldn’t get the scheduling together. [Months later], I’m on tour with my band in Europe and my manager randomly calls me and says, ‘I don’t know why, but all of the artists are available next week.'”
The following year, “Black Radio 2” (2014) was nominated again for Best R&B Album, featuring Common, Brandy, Jill Scott, Faith Evans, Norah Jones and Snoop Dogg.
“I’m not a fan of doing multiple takes if there’s no need for it,” Glasper said. “I’m more of a first-time magic person; 95% of anything I’ve recorded ever is the first take.”
That same year, he won Best Rap/Sung Collaboration by playing keys on Kendrick Lamar’s “These Walls,” featured on the iconic album “To Pimp a Butterfly” (2014).
“I played on nine songs on that album,” Glasper said. “I’m in L.A. doing my record ‘Covered.’ … The first night, John Mayer walks over [and] I jammed with John like two or three hours. … Then the next day, Terrace [Martin] calls me: ‘When you finish your session, come by Dr. Dre’s studio, I’m here with Kendrick.’ I’m like, ‘Bet!'”
Ironically, his signature piano solo in “These Walls” was actually his warmup.
“I started warming up on it and started playing some scales and fast things, just warming up and messing around with the changes for what I thought was before he started recording, but Terrace was recording me already,” Glasper said. “That’s why when you head the song there’s a solo in the middle of the song. … That’s my warmup!”
Next, he produced the Grammy-winning soundtrack for the Miles Davis biopic “Miles Ahead” (2015), starring Don Cheadle, who directed himself in the movie.
“Don tweeted me,” Glasper said. “We DM’ed each other and started texting. He’s like, ‘I’m working on this Miles Davis movie, have you ever did a score before?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah.’ I literally had never done a score before, so I lied. [Later], I called him from the [Grammy] stage like, ‘We won!’ He got dressed [and] we ended up walking the red carpet.”
Suddenly, Glasper was now a part of Hollywood, leading to his Emmy with Common for “Letter to the Free” on the Ava DuVernay documentary “13th” (2016) about institutional racism in the criminal justice system.
“I was in Houston with my son,” Glasper said. “Common called me like, ‘Hey can you fly to L.A. now? Ava called me and needs a song for this documentary.’ I was like, ‘Ah, I can’t. I have my son.’ … He’s like, ‘Man, I’ll do it in Houston.’ … He and Karriem Riggins the producer got on a plane to Houston, we went into the studio and came up with that song. … It ended up winning Best Song for a Documentary.”