Jazz pianist Robert Glasper works on two tracks: one formal, with the acoustic trio that brought him to fame a decade ago; the other in a progressive R&B vein, driven by concept albums where Glasper invites soul and hip-hop stars and curates, produces, and plays keyboards on what results. The two approaches aren’t opposed: Glasper and friends come from a generation raised in the 1980s-90s on the full spectrum of Black music (and more); Glasper himself attended the Houston arts high school that also produced, among others, pianist Jason Moran and a certain Beyoncé Knowles.
Glasper’s first hybrid, “Black Radio” (2012), was a breakthrough, anchored by a glorious Erykah Badu take on “Afro Blue,” with Glasper’s Experiment sextet as the glue connecting the songs. The less memorable “Black Radio 2” followed in 2013. Now Badu and her fellow first-round collaborators, Bilal and the trio KING (then unknown, now highly buzzed), return to Glasper’s fold, joining a global cast including UK singer Laura Mvula, LA alt-soul stalwart Georgia Ann Muldrow, and Australia’s Hiatus Kaiyote, for “Everything’s Beautiful,” another fine outing in what’s by now its own sub-genre.
But wait: What about Miles Davis? Yes, this is a Davis project too, tied to the master’s 90th birthday and the “Miles Ahead” biopic (for which Glasper also played on the soundtrack). Each song on “Everything’s Beautiful” is built around something — a snippet, a sample, a single track from an original multitrack master — in the Davis archives, to which Glasper had access. The familiar trumpet shows up on most, but not all, tracks; some feature Davis’s voice, that truculent rasp, barking in the studio. As tribute concepts go, this one is nerdy, but has the distinct merit of avoiding straight covers.
“Everything’s Beautiful” is impeccably made, with some stirring songs: the chill vibes of “Ghetto Walkin” with Bilal; the gutbucket bounce and bluesy theme of “I’m Leaving You,” with Ledisi and guitarist John Scofield (a onetime Davis bandmate); the four-on-the-floor “Right on Brotha” (with Stevie Wonder on harmonica!), which serves as germ of its own house remix. Best of all is the searching, layered “Milestones” with Muldrow, where Glasper, on electronic keys elsewhere, offers a sharp piano solo.
But something’s missing, too. Partly it’s momentum: The middle of the album is a problem, especially the Hiatus Kaiyote number, “Little Church,” a strange, bloodless clunker that drags down the Mvula (“Silence Is the Way”) and KING (“Song for Selim”) features that follow. The Badu track, the electro-bossa nova “Maiysha (So Long),” is fine but familiar. Miles Davis concept aside, Glasper’s still in “Black Radio” mode. It works, but it needs a little dirt, and probably a new challenge. One imagines that Davis himself — restless and ever-innovating — might have felt the same way.