Pianist Robert Glasper has jazz chops sophisticated enough to satiate diehard purists and an affinity for hip-hop and R&B that has resulted in collaborations with Q-Tip, Maxwell and Mos Def. Black Radio scrambles these influences, with Glasper’s Experiment quartet (including Derrick Hodge on electric bass, Casey Benjamin on sax and vocoder, and Chris Dave playing drums), laying unpredictable music beneath a bevy of high-profile guests. In this era of Pandora-style musical-profiling, where listeners can narrow down exactly what they think they want, the project absorbs genres like a sponge and squeezes out surprises with a tinge of tang and froth. It avoids the sappiness of “smooth jazz,” the stilted self-reference of “hip-hop jazz” and the suffocating cushion of “quiet storm,” yet there’s a lush sensuality that permeates the beats, bop rhythms and bracing moments of curiosity and intellect.
Glasper understands that this Experiment is best undertaken as a tactile experience – as Shafiq Husayn rap-drawls in the opener, “Lift Off,” all you need is your ears and your soul. To drive home the point, the beguiling yawl and coo of Erykah Badu sends the Afro-Cuban classic “Afro Blue” into the air like a large kite in a steady wind, its tail trilling. Rappers Lupe Fiasco and yasiin bey (better known as Mos Def) variously distill verbal science and wig out on wordplay (“turtles from a man hole”?), knowing the live quartet can alter the texture and freestyle the route as the situation warrants, on “Always Shine” and “Black Radio,” respectively. There is a throwback nature to Black Radio, and not only because Sade (“Cherish The Day,” with Lalah Hathaway on vocals), David Bowie (“Letter to Hermione,” featuring Bilal channeling Stevie Wonder) and Nirvana (a deconstructed and vocoderized “Smells Like Teen Spirit”) are covered. There are moments reminiscent of the soul-jazz fusion of Bobbi Humphrey and Donald Byrd back on Blue Note in the late ’70s, or Soul II Soul and Me Phi Me back in the ’80s, or Alphabet Soup and Mint Condition in the ’90s, with a dollop of 21st-century hip-hop on top. Why reinvent the wheel when you can modify the ride?