It wasn’t entirely coincidental that Robert Glasper convened his collaborative all-star band R+R=NOW in Los Angeles as the 2018 NBA All-Star Game was being held there. Two of Glasper’s high-profile bandmates for the project — trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah and bassist Derrick Hodge — are now LA-based and share the same manager as Glasper.
A third, multi-instrumentalist Terrace Martin — best known for his production and sideman credits with the likes of Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, and Herbie Hancock (Martin facilitated Glasper playing keyboards on several tracks of Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly,” and Glasper reciprocated by connecting Martin with Hancock) — is a lifelong Angeleno. And as Glasper pointed out by phone recently, Martin having his own manager wasn’t an issue.
“Terrace doesn’t really go on tour,” explains Glasper, who has known Martin since they met at a Colorado jazz camp as teenagers. “Terrace is a studio rat. For the most part he’s in the studio, but for this last year he’s actually been out with Herbie. Now he just wants to be in the studio, produce, and only go out when we go out.”
The band, which follows their July-long tour of Europe with a Friday performance at the Newport Jazz Festival, also features Taylor McFerrin on synthesizers and drummer Justin Tyson. Glasper had brought an earlier version of the group, with Marcus Gilmore on drums, to the 2017 South by Southwest Music Festival. When it came time for him to record a new album for Blue Note Records earlier this year, Glasper ran a few project ideas through his mind before thinking: “Wait a minute, we could do what I did last year. That’s an awesome band.”
So they reassembled for four days at a studio in LA, where the laid-back vibe included a full bar, a television, and impromptu visits from friends — Don Cheadle, Terry Crews, Omari Hardwick, Amber Navran, and others — several of whom sat in on a track. One night the band jammed with Usher and Common at a pop-up event Dave Chappelle was hosting at a local club, where they ran into the rapper Stalley and invited him to join them in the studio the next day.
All 11 tracks on the resultant album, titled “Collagically Speaking” and released June 15, were written and recorded in one take over those four days. None of the band members plays on all of them; on her spoken paean to womanhood “HER=NOW,” guest Amanda Seales is backed solely by McFerrin’s synth and Hodge’s bass. Martin doesn’t play saxophone at all on the album, focusing on synthesizer and vocoder.
The two R’s in the band’s name stand for “Reflect” and “Respond,” which Glasper says he took from a Nina Simone quotation (Glasper produced and played on the 2015 album “Nina Revisited . . . A Tribute to Nina Simone,” which also featured Tyson on drums) and a remark of Hodge’s.
“Like Nina Simone said, ‘As an artist, you have to reflect the times,’ ” Glasper recalls. “I got the ‘response’ part from Derrick Hodge. Me and Terrace and Derrick were in the studio together . . . and Derrick played something super-amazing, and me and Terrence were like, ‘Oh my gosh! What’s that?’ And Derrick said, ‘Man, I’m just responding.’ I took him responding and took Nina Simone’s reflecting, and just put R+R=NOW.”
Simone famously reflected her times both musically and politically. The politics of R+R=NOW is subtler, but it’s there.
“I can’t speak for Rob, but I think it references musically and politically,” says Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah. “It’s just a bunch of guys that really like each other’s music, that happen to have close proximity to each other, that are like, ‘Why don’t we just do this?’ So that’s how it happened. I mean, it happened quicker than I can remember anything happening.”
Glasper’s take: “I always try to represent the time I’m in.” In this case, he says, that involved “trying to throw in things that are happening during the time period without it weighing down the album. I want people to listen to my record and not feel sad, because it’ll stop people from listening to the record. There’s already enough things to be sad about. If you watch TV at all, or if you listen to the radio — news, anything — there’s so much sadness going around.
“So the one thing that’s needed is light. You need something positive, and I want people to be able to put my record on to kind of escape that [sadness]. But at the same time, I wanted to kind of answer some of the things that are happening in a positive way, without it being obvious that that’s what I’m doing. But that’s exactly what I’m doing.”
That Amanda Seales track, for instance. “I thought it was very important to have female representation on this album,” says Glasper, “because I think this is the best time for females ever.”
That the band’s music reflects the times is more obvious: It’s both of-the-moment and refuses to be confined by genre.
‘It has to be someone who has a like mind of fluidity when it comes to music.’
“For the most part, the album’s definitely jazz, because we’re really creating on the spot,” says Glasper. “So I feel like it’s the house of jazz, but there’s different rooms. You might walk into the R&B room for a second. You might walk into the hip-hop room for a minute. You might walk into the jazz [room].”
Glasper makes no apologies for that eclecticism. “Jazz is literally a mutt. Jazz is made from blues, jazz is made from classical music. It was made from religious music. And so it always was a music that was mixed together to make something. People say, ‘Oh, well if you mix this, is it still jazz?’ Yeah! Because it was mixed to begin with. That’s how they made it.”
Whether anyone will help the R+R=NOW bunch make jazz at Newport, a la the guests who joined them in the studio, is an open question. Glasper’s inclination is to stick with the band and their established repertoire, but he won’t rule it out.
“It has to be someone who has a like mind of fluidity when it comes to music,” he says. Glasper recalls calling Gregory Porter onstage with him at a past Newport festival, for example.
Glasper also recognizes that, life being finite, it’s important to seize the NOW. “You don’t know when you’re leaving,” he says. “You want to try to get all the . . .”
“All the juice out of life?” he is prompted.
“Yeah, exactly,” he confirms. “Don’t just say, ‘We’ll do it next year.’ You don’t know that. You really don’t.”Bill Beuttler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.