‘Black Radio’ Sends Its Signal to Milwaukee
Robert Glasper at the South Milwaukee PAC
The Robert Glasper Experiment’s
Black Radio, a live amalgam of R&B, hip-hop and jazz taking place 7:30
p.m. Sept. 26 at the South Milwaukee Performing Arts Center (SMPAC), may feel
like an experiment for the SMPAC. After all, this is urban music insinuating
itself north to south, with much of what that signifies in terms of American
and Milwaukee history.
Glasper’s version of hip-hop attitude and black culture travels across Milwaukee's great racial divide of the industrial valley, where a peaceful open-housing demonstration crossed in 1967. Violent retaliation spurred race riots, earning Milwaukee the nickname “The Selma of the North.”
Despite clear progress, how much less racially and culturally polarized is America or Milwaukee today? Yes, we have boho-Bay View, but this African-American traveling show is going into Milwaukee’s deep south. And yet, South Milwaukee is its own distinct community, SMPAC Director Chad Piechocki points out. The center staged blues legend John Hammond last season. And the city got a feel for contemporary, historically informed black music at the end of last season with Ruthie Foster, the gospel-soul-roots folk singer.
She was well received, but then again, her earthy radiance is fairly feel-good. Yet, in his way, so is keyboardist-composer Glasper. Sure, he’s pushing the cultural edge further. Black Radio reflects a new era for the arts center and its intrepid and imaginative young director, with the concert based on Glasper's same-titled album.
The center is an impressively renovated space in South Milwaukee High School (901 15th Ave., South Milwaukee) and operates as part of the city’s recreational department. Piechocki aims for the “eclectic yet accessible” programming that began with his resourceful predecessor, Brenda Johnston. Perhaps Glasper is just the man for rethinking preconceptions and stereotypes. What can you presuppose about an album like Black Radio, which seamlessly ranges from Erykah Badu singing Mongo Santamaria’s Afro-Latin jazz classic “Afro-Blue” to Lalah Hathaway recasting the cool ecstasy of Sade’s “Cherish the Day”?
Add to that “The Consequences of Jealousy” by crossover jazz bassist Meshell Ndegeocello (who plays on the album), David Bowie's “Letter to Hermione” and Kurt Cobain's “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Glasper’s originals, aided by Mos Def, Musiq Soulchild and others, help it all meld. Unlike hardcore hip-hop, Black Radio brims with melodic and harmonic sophistication, more like the hybrids of fellow jazzer Jason Moran.
The album’s deftly wrought diversity recently earned Glasper five category awards from DownBeat magazine's 60th annual critics’ poll. Glasper is trying to challenge presumptions about and of hip-hop, and succeeding, because he's getting played on urban radio—and during prime daytime slots. On Oct. 9, Blue Note Records will release a remixed version of the album with an unreleased track. And Glasper has been added to the lineup of the “iTunes Festival 2012” (which will be downloadable live) in London on Sept. 23.
The CD delivers not gangsta rapology, but rather a kind of immersion in supple R&B-groove, chill-out “experimentation for meditation.”
“I hope to see these gangstas acting like teachers,” Lupe Fiasco muses at one point on “Always Shine.” Or Sade’s lyric: “Cherish the day, I won’t go astray, I won’t be afraid, you won’t catch me runnin’.” Black Radio flows and eddies to hard-won, high-grade cultural enlightenment, updating Stevie Wonder’s more politically visionary stratospheres.
“For a 17-year-old kid to hear that music, who listens to hip-hop… it's like, ‘Hey, what's that?’” Glasper commented in DownBeat. His role models are Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis—“jazz musicians who didn't just play jazz.” Glasper’s first two acoustic Blue Note recordings showed he’s also got post-Monk, post-Coltrane modern jazz down cold.
Piechocki himself defies stereotypes: He graduated from West Point, where he majored in philosophy before beginning his venture into the arts. He writes poetry and for theater and is working on a project that he hopes will successfully set his verse to dance performance.
Aided by the South Milwaukee Performing Arts Council, Piechocki aims to stay at a high, yet indefinable, level. Last season had a sold-out flamenco show and this season boasts the return of the Vienna Boys Choir (Nov. 23). 2013 shows include unclassifiable physical comedian Avner Eisenberg (Jan. 25) on the center’s “Student Series,” Davell Crawford interpreting Ray Charles’ pioneering 1962 crossover album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music (March 14), Frank Ferrante’s Groucho Marx show (April 26) and cutting-edge illusionist Jason Bishop (May 17), among others. For more information, visit www.southmilwaukeepac.org or call (414) 766-5049.
Kevin Lynch is an award-winning arts journalist who has written about culture for many years, as a staff writer for the Milwaukee Journal and The Capital Times in Madison. He’s written for DownBeat, The Village Voice, New Art Examiner, American Record Guide and other publications. He blogs at Culture Currents (Vernaculars Speak) and NoDepression.com.