Tribute concerts can feel like burial ceremonies for the living.
But at a live 2011 homage to vibraphonist and icon Roy Ayers by hip-hop-loving jazz pianist Robert Glasper and smooth-sampling rap producer Pete Rock, the sophisti-funk legend wouldn't allow it. Ayers emerged onstage before Rock even appeared, just as The Robert Glasper Experiment introduced the strutting bump of Ayers' 1976 hit, "Everybody Loves the Sunshine."
Ayers wouldn't be propped-up Weekend At Bernie's-style, serving as the elder only there to scoop up accolades; he wanted to be part of the action. Sure, Rock snuck in a subtle but significant tribute later, scratching James Brown grunts into a live version of Ayers' "We Live In Brooklyn," implicitly aligning the two in terms of significance. But the 68-minute North Sea Jazz Festival concert—and the musician it honored—seemed very much alive.
Though more than three decades separate them, Ayers and Glasper are key members in a process that's proven essential to the survival of jazz: Masters of the form, they've helped spread its improvisational and compositional tendrils, using them to influence soul, hip-hop and even electronica. In several essential ways, Ayers taught Glasper how to do just that, and he's never taken those lessons for granted.
The California-born Ayers began his career as a studious, post-bop vibraphonist in the '60s before crafting his own calling in the early '70s with Roy Ayers Ubiquity, a pivotal soft-focus jazz-funk crew. They sparked the smooth revolution that birthed acid jazz, influenced house music and provided infinite sample fodder for hip-hop. Producers either glommed onto his pleasant pieces or chopped them into chunks of catchy chaos.
But Ayers has never been content to let his back catalog do his talking. He collaborated with Afrobeat revolutionary Fela Kuti, made a strange album with punk-funk maniac Rick James, recorded with Gang Starr rapper Guru and neo-soul icon Erykah Badu and supplied grooves for house producers Masters At Work. As if to offer evidence of his lasting impact, a stellar, two-volume set of '70s odds-and-sods, Virgin Ubiquity, sparked a remix project that not only featured usual post-soul suspects like The Foreign Exchange's Nicolay but also British freaks Basement Jaxx and experimental whiz Matthew Herbert.
This influence stems, in part, from Ayers' position as a strutting update of the black composer heroes of the big band and bop eras. Picture Ayers as Duke Ellington in a velvet track suit, a spliff dangling between his fingers. The instrumental bed of an Ayers song sounds like he's wrapped it in tissue paper, dipped it in honey and submerged it in the sea. Synthesizers and keyboards whinny and moan. Drums, vibraphones and basslines become a globby narcotic. On "Sunshine" or hits like "Searching" and "Running Away," vocals become an ecstatic catharsis of mixed cries and croons. Song titles like "Pretty Brown Skin" and "Ebony Blaze" gave Ayers a strong, defiant political edge.
Ayers is a fusionist, a word worth saying aloud since it gets a bad rap from super-serious jazzbos and similar authenticity-chasers who think music must be coarse to be important. Sure, Ayers' hyper-pleasant hybrid R&B is easy on the ears, but it's also impossible to define. It sits in the nooks and crannies of so many African-American genres. When Glasper interviewed Ayers for CentricTV in 2011, he could only call it "the Roy Ayers sound."
During that interview, Glasper appears geeked out to be talking to Ayers. Even then, Ayers rejected his legend status. He seems bemused by Glasper's enthusiasm as he shares stories from his past with a casual air so blasé it's badass. He recounts how the first pair of vibraphone mallets he received came from his idol Lionel Hampton when the legend walked off the stage and passed them to the young Ayers, in attendance with his mom and dad. He ponders how he got to his sound, which he attributes to an interest in "incorporat[ing] voices" into jazz. He says Erykah Badu once called him "the king of neo-soul," to which Ayers replied "What's neo-soul?"
Glasper, in full fanboy mode, gushes: "It just has a Roy Ayers sound. There's nothing you can describe. It's just Roy Ayers."
"You can't get away from it," Ayers deadpans.
The idea of any defining sound is antithetical to Ayers, whose entire career reflects a coy acknowledgement that musical tradition is limiting. It's a sentiment Glasper shares and inherited, in part, from decades with Ayers' albums. In a recent interview with Nordstrom's fashion blog, Glasper mocked the conservative logic of musical purists. "'You know, if you mix it with this, it's not jazz anymore,'" he said, lampooning his critics. People who think that way, he said, have "hit their ceiling."
Indeed, Glasper's own work fuses traditional jazz and underground hip-hop with the same aplomb that Ayers once used to graft grimy funk and soft-focus soul onto jazz. Glasper can play the piano like someone raised on the jazz greats, but he prefers to play like someone also indebted to the rearranged piano samples of J Dilla or DJ Premier.
Glasper has found a way to introduce hip-hop styles in jazz without the former subsuming the latter, or vice versa. He has an ear for hip-hop's mash-up culture, for instance, blending Herbie Hancock's "Maiden Voyage" with Radiohead's "Everything In Its Right Place" in 2007. And he answered rap's auto-tune fetish with vocoder moans of his own on 2009's Double Booked. That record traded tracks between his conventional acoustic jazz crew, The Robert Glasper Trio, and the anything-goes electronic quartet, The Robert Glasper Experiment.
His two-album Black Radio set featured collaborations with rappers and R&B singers from Ledisi to Snoop Dogg, while two connected remix projects illustrated how he was willing to let his jazz be ripped apart by others. Glasper, like Ayers, embraced the opportunity to be sampled. "I can't believe it," the elder told the kid in the CentricTV interview when Glasper asked about how hip-hop has taken to his hits.
He has played live with Kanye West, worked with Q-Tip and Mos Def and, most recently, contributed significantly to Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly. Glasper affords Lamar's masterful album a seasoned sincerity. His boozy, pounding piano on "For Free (Interlude)" bridges Lamar's head-blown rapping and the spoken-word radicalism he seems to reference. Glasper's plaintive playing ushers "Complexion (Zulu Love)" toward a standout guest verse from Raleigh rapper Rapsody. The song also recalls the same black-is-beautiful body politics of Ayers' "Pretty Brown Skin."
Lamar has rapped over Ayers-derived beats in the past. And at its most open-hearted, the Compton rapper's sprawling concept record shows traces of the sunny, stoic compositions of the South Central-born Ayers. Glasper's help has a lot to do with that essence. Even when Ayers isn't present, then, his music finds a way into the moment.
"You can't get away from it," he said. Who would want to?