“It’s Called Freedom So We Can Leave”: Robert Glasper on the Mind-Expanding Legacy of Miles Davis

On “Everything’s Beautiful,” the jazz pianist deconstructs Miles’s old recordings, then reassembles them with help from Stevie Wonder, Erykah Badu, KING, Bilal, and more. Here, he talks about how the legend’s legacy extends far beyond jazz.
“It’s Called Freedom So We Can Leave”: Robert Glasper on the Mind-Expanding Legacy of Miles Davis

On “Everything’s Beautiful,” the jazz pianist deconstructs Miles’s old recordings, then reassembles them with help from Stevie Wonder, Erykah Badu, KING, Bilal, and more. Here, he talks about how the legend’s legacy extends far beyond jazz.

Words: Josh Hurst

photo by Don Q. Hannah photography

May 23, 2016

Robert Glasper / photo by Don Q. Hannah

A cool, clarion trumpet introduces “Silence Is the Way,” a song that arrives midway through the latest idea-rich, genre-defiant record from pianist Robert Glasper. The sound of that trumpet is surprising for a couple of reasons. One, its tone couldn’t possibly belong to anyone but Miles Davis—not just the inspiration and guiding force behind this project, but in many ways a central collaborator; Miles’s name is there right beside Glasper’s on the LP cover. But even more surprising than this otherworldly appearance is the fact that there are so few others like it on Everything’s Beautiful. For a record that’s ostensibly an homage to the greatest trumpeter this side of Louis Armstrong, there’s an almost shocking absence of horns to be found.

Of course, toning down the trumpet was Glasper’s plan all along—part of the unique perspective he brings to his co-billing with the iconic jazzman. “If a trumpeter made this album, I guarantee you there would be a lot more trumpet on the record,” he laughs. “I didn’t want to do that because, we get it: he played trumpet. But you can put the trumpet down and still talk about Miles.”

For Glasper, the appeal of making an album like Everything’s Beautiful wasn’t in taking an academic approach to the music of Miles Davis, treating it like a museum piece; what he wanted to do was show how this music still kicks, how it still lives and breathes, how it still holds sway over so much music being made today—and not just jazz music, either.

“The reality is, the average person doesn’t care about the trumpet,” he remarks. “They don’t care about instruments. Let’s just put it out there. The average person doesn’t understand a jazz solo. They just don’t. So this album was not for jazz people. This album is for people who probably don’t listen to jazz. I wanted to introduce his compositions and his influence on other artists. And that goes bigger than the trumpet.”

Everything’s Beautiful doesn’t seek to capture Miles’s instrumental technique, then, so much as his vibe, his almost preternatural sense of cool. “Miles has a big influence on the attitude of a lot of people, a lot of musicians, especially in how fearless he was,” says Glasper. “He was a fearless musician, a fearless person, which allowed him to say ‘F you,’ and to do what he wanted to do and make his own path. I always say he was one big walking middle finger. I didn’t want to make this about his trumpet playing, because every other Miles Davis remix album you’re going to hear is just going to be a bunch of trumpet. And for a trumpet player, that’s great. But I wanted to blend in different areas and avenues and not be so obvious about it.”

For Glasper—whose celebrated Black Radio albums have allowed him to collaborate with everyone from Snoop Dogg to Norah Jones, Brandy to Lupe Fiasco—the Everything’s Beautiful sessions were a chance not to memorialize Miles but to actually co-create with him. Glasper was granted access to an extensive vault of Davis’s recording sessions, where he was able to take individual tracks—a piano part from one song, drums from another—and stitch them together into new compositions, filling them out with contributions from Erykah Badu, Stevie Wonder, Hiatus Kaiyote, and others.

“I always say Miles Davis was one big walking middle finger.”

It’s the first Glasper album to be based around studiocraft, not a live band set-up. It’s also an adventurous and immersive record that captures the spirit of Miles Davis without ever recalling any one song, album, or era in particular. There is a wild and wooly version of “Milestones” here—colored with synths and underscored by a finger-popping hip-hop beat—but most of the songs use Miles’s recordings as a starting-off point for brand new adventures, rather than simply trying to recreate the canon. The Kind of Blue favorite “Blue In Green” is here turned to “Violets,” almost unrecognizable with its spooky, lurching beat and its on-point rhymes from frequent Roots collaborator Phonte. The record is electric even when drawing from Miles’s acoustic material, and it conjures both frantic, noisy energy (check “I’m Leaving You,” a killer piece of On the Corner funk) as well as Miles’s more quiet, ambient side (“Silence Is the Way,” which transplants the In a Silent Way whisper into a more slippery, upbeat setting.)

Crucially, Miles himself is present on every track. “[On] every song, he is in it somewhere, somehow—whether it’s his voice, the trumpet, him clapping, him whistling, or his compositions,” Glasper says.

And sure enough, Miles’s presence is always felt, even when you can’t pinpoint exactly how—something that Glasper says is important to the Miles legacy; it wasn’t just about what he did on the record, but the influence he wielded behind the scenes. “The thing about Miles was that he was a master at knowing which guys to get to portray the sound that was in his head. He knew which guys to get that would spark new ideas for him,” he confirms. “He was always listening. He would get young cats who were new on the scene, and they would have a new sound, and they would come up with some things for him to think about, and he would take it even further. And he would know how to get the right guys to do that.”

Glasper points to his favorite Davis LP, Miles Smiles, as a great example of the mind-expanding influence Miles can have on other musicians. “The cool thing about that record, Herbie [Hancock]’s not comping on that record. He’s not using his left hand. He’s just playing with one hand on the whole record. I thought that was super cool. I thought that was innovative. I’d never heard anybody do that before. And Herbie said, ‘Miles told me just before the record session, right before we went into record, try not to use your left hand. Just use your right hand. And what he realized was that he was freer just playing with the right hand. Miles was telling him without telling him, your left hand is locking you in from certain harmony. Take your left hand away and you’ve got more information there. You’ve got more ground to cover. It gave him more options within those confines.”

“Milestones” aside, Everything’s Beautiful is as sparse on Miles standards as it is on trumpet, with Glasper and his collaborators primarily digging into lesser-known texts. This, too, was intentional: “There were certain songs that are obvious songs that everybody knows Miles from, and I wanted to stay away from those songs,” he says. “It’s limiting because he has so much music that people haven’t tapped into. Plus, some of his songs could be really corny. I wanted to do songs where, if you put words to it—like ‘Maiysha,’ the joint with Erykah Badu, that sounds dope with lyrics. The melody’s killin’. It sounds cool. But some of his more popular songs, you put lyrics to them, it could be weird and sound corny. And Miles was not about being corny.”

“Some of his more popular songs, you put lyrics to them, it could be weird and sound corny. And Miles was not about being corny.”

So what was Miles about? For Glasper, it all comes back to his zeal to explore, and his willingness to put himself in situations that challenged him and ultimately forced him to try new ideas. “I’ve been hanging out with Herbie a lot lately, in LA, and listening to him talking about Miles,” Glasper shares. “He and Tony Williams would be talking about something just before a show, and do these random things on stage, and Miles wouldn’t even turn around and look. He would just go along with it, as if it was in the script. As long as you were doing something different, Miles was OK with it.”

And while Miles was never quite known as a free-jazz proponent on par with Coleman or Coltrane, Glasper says his expansive, all-encompassing approach to his music is what makes the legacy of Miles Davis so liberating. And liberation is what Glasper values most of all in the Miles legacy; he cites Davis’s own acceptance of hip-hop, at a time when most members of the old guard didn’t want to give rap the time of day, as significant for his own career, and celebrates Miles’s willingness to allow all different kinds of music into his life, and ultimately into his work, as the true embodiment of creative freedom.

“That lends itself to going into other territories, other than what we call—in quotations—‘jazz,’” he says. “If you’re a person who has a lot of different music in your head, and you’re really open to improvising, how can you stop it from flowing into, ‘OK, now I’m playing a backbeat.’ That’s what freedom is. It’s called freedom so we can leave.” FL