Robert Glasper Talks Luther Vandross Documentary, Upcoming Napa Valley Festival & All That Jazz

Robert Glasper stays busy. When Billboard recently caught up with the five-time Grammy winner, it was on the eve of his performance — with his band and special guest Yebba — at the annual Hollywood Bowl Jazz Festival on June 16. And between rehearsals for that performance, he was in the midst of recording his next album.

And this after announcing the arrival of his latest album, Let Go, just a few days prior. The release of the meditative instrumental album, one of several planned projects via an exclusive partnership with Apple Music, also coincided with the music platform’s celebration of jazz during Black Music Month.

Thanks to critically acclaimed, burgeoning jazz artists such as Grammy winner Samara Joy, fellow Grammy winner Laufey and 2023 Mercury Music Prize winner Ezra Collective, jazz has been making some headlines in the last several years. And as a noted jazz artist himself, Glasper is here for this new wave.

“I think that people are OK with jazz moving into the modern times,” he says. “People are kind of letting go and allowing it to do what it needs to do. We already have jazz history. But new things [in jazz] also need to be done so that the new things can, in turn, make history. People like Samara Joy … she’s a breath of fresh air. She obviously has studied the history of the music, but you can hear her through it as well. And she’s not afraid of genre-hopping either. I love the fact that she’s steeped so deep in gospel music and R&B. People are seeing others like Esperanza [Spalding] and Gregory Porter, who are bringing jazz into a new day.

“They’re saying it’s OK to learn the history,” continues Glasper, “but don’t get held back by it. That lesson is being taught. And a lot of people are embracing this new wave of artists who are telling their stories and aren’t afraid to do so.”

Now back in the studio recording his next album for Apple Music, Glasper describes the forthcoming project as half jazz and half hip-hop. With fellow musicians Walter Smith on tenor saxophone, Keyon Harrold on trumpet, Vicente Archer on bass, Kendrick Scott on drums and Mike Moreno on guitar, Glasper is currently recording the album’s jazz half. 

“We’re recording some jazz tunes in a very acoustic, sextet style,” Glasper explains. The other half of the album will be hip-hop versions of those jazz songs. I’m going to have different hip-hop producers sample each of those songs and make a hip-hop beat out of it.”

In the meantime, Glasper is busy ramping up for Blue Note Jazz Festival Presents: The Black Radio Experience. As earlier announced, John Legend, Jill Scott and André 3000 are headlining the Napa Valley, Calif., event during Labor Day weekend (Aug. 30-Sept. 1). The festival, a partnership between Blue Note Entertainment Group and Black Radio Productions, will be hosted by Sway Calloway. 

Ticking off a lineup that also features Andra Day, Common with Pete Rock, Musiq Soulchild, Nile Rodgers and Christian McBride (more info here), Glasper — also doubling as artist in residence — says the festival “will be a tad bit more intimate than last year. We’re looking forward to a great weekend.”

Offstage, Glasper has been busy working on various television projects since scoring the music for Peacock’s The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reboot Bel-Air in 2022 with fellow artist/musician Terrace Martin. Those projects include creating the original score for the current Apple TV+ limited series The Big Cigar. With a cast that includes André Holland and Glynn Turman, the six-part drama chronicles Black Panther founder Huey P. Newton’s escape from the FBI to Cuba. 

Glasper, who also counts The Photograph and season two of HBO’s Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty among his film and television credits, most recently did the music for the forthcoming documentary about R&B/pop singer/songwriter legend Luther Vandross. Luther: Never Too Much, directed by Dawn Porter, is slated to premiere next year on CNN, OWN and Max.

“Luther was the soundtrack to my childhood,” Glasper tells Billboard about the chance to work on the documentary. “We didn’t have a family gathering without Luther’s music playing. Doing the music for this doc was close to my heart. It felt like him.”

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