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Jazz With An R&B Vibe, And Vice Versa

Bilal performs at the 2010 Soul Train Awards.
Moses Robinson
Getty Images
Bilal performs at the 2010 Soul Train Awards.

Here are two versions of the same song, sung by the same man. They aren't both jazz. But they both have a lot to do with it.

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The first is from pianist Robert Glasper's 2009 album Double Booked, featuring his good friend Bilal Oliver singing. The conceit behind that record was that it shows off two different bands: Glasper's acoustic piano trio and his electrified Experiment, a funkier ensemble. NPR Music and WBGO are webcasting and recording the piano trio live at the Village Vanguard tonight at 9 p.m. ET; this track features the Experiment.

The second is from Bilal's new album Airtight's Revenge, out a few months ago. Bilal is jazz-trained -- he and Glasper met as students at the New School -- but his main line of work is somewhere in the neo-soul sphere. He wrote the song, and has summoned a clearly different setting in this version.

So we have a jazz recording with an R&B vibe, and an R&B recording with a jazz singer. I think this is more than just a clever turn of phrase.

The Glasper version of "All Matter" clearly borrows some language from modern pop music. There are studio flourishes, electric piano and bass, a beat uncommon to jazz.

But check out Glasper's shifting accompaniment. And dig how drummer Chris Dave keeps tweaking that beat. It's the unmistakable feel of musicians responding to each other in real time, echoing and refracting each other, accepting a push-and-pull flexibility. There's a propulsive feeling that's clearly related to swing, even if it's not "ching-ching-a-ling." Oh, and Glasper takes a solo improvisation, of course.

In both songs, Bilal has a singing approach that feels jazz-informed. "All Matter" has such an asymmetric, stretched-out set of lyrics ("one great big small thing, like pollen, in the spring breeze / a speck of dust in this vast universe"); as a songwriter Bilal seems to value tension and an unexpected rhythmic feel. And his phrasing feels like imaginative expression, rather than rote execution. Hearing both versions back to back confirms his ability to modify in the moment -- to hear an impulse in his mind's ear, go for it and knock it out at full throttle. He makes every single soaring iteration of "you ain't even gotta try" count.

But the accompaniment on Airtight's Revenge feels far less flexible. The drums, the alternating guitar riff, the bass line maintain a static pattern -- they groove, but seem locked into alignment, and don't really swing in the same way as Glasper's version. There are plenty of embellishments -- a hi-hat here, a vocal assist there -- but they sound like post-production overdubs, not on-the-fly changes. It's not exactly classifiable, but it's certainly not jazz interaction in the same way its counterpart leans toward.

Why does this matter? If both are filled with art, can't we just let them be?

Sure. But consider this line:

Still, looking at it as objectively as I can, there are plenty of awful singers ... who meet the definition of authentic jazz vocalist no less than Sarah Vaughan; at the same time, there are many completely jazzless singers who have more to say to jazz as a whole than most jazz singers, such as Mabel Mercer and Edith Piaf.

That's from the preface to Will Friedwald's book Jazz Singing; it was quoted by Nate Chinen in a recent JazzTimes column pondering the curious nature of jazz singing. And that's what I thought about here.

Bilal's new album isn't much of a jazz record. But it does feature a talented musician who can listen, adjust and interact in real time. Bilal proves it when he's thrust into a jazzier setting. At the same time, the specific types of beats and production ornaments and lines being introduced in the Glasper version -- they have kin in the R&B world. And I happen to think they work quite nicely in this setting.

Can you think of any other examples where not-jazz has a lot to say to jazz? Or, alternately, where jazz is hiding in other forms of music?

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