switched on pop

The Point Guard of Winning Time’s Score Sees Jazz in Basketball

Illustration: Iris Gottlieb

Robert Glasper is the only artist to have an album — his 2012 release Black Radio — debut in the top 10 of four Billboard charts at the same time: Hip Hop R&B, Urban Contemporary, Jazz, and Contemporary Jazz. He’s a musical polymath whose CV spans era and genre, having collaborated with Kendrick Lamar and Herbie Hancock, among others. At the piano, he can serve up jazz licks worthy of Mary Lou Williams before segueing into a Nirvana cover — a diverse skill set brought to bear on his latest project, scoring HBO’s Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty alongside Succession soundtracker Nicholas Britell.

The gig was one where he used not just his musical chops, but also his own experience as a grade-school hooper. Switched on Pop’s Nate Sloan spoke with Glasper about crafting the sound of the 1980s, improvising soundtrack themes on the spot, and the commonalities of jazz and basketball.

Nate Sloan: What made you sign on to this project in the first place?
Robert Glasper: Nick Britell, who was the initial composer for it. I was a fan of his, so when his people called my people, and it was like, “Hey, Nick Britell wants you to join him on a score,” I was like, “Fuck yeah.” I didn’t even know what it was.

So you didn’t know the project was Winning Time, just that it was a chance to work with Nick.
I knew he did Succession and I knew he did Moonlight. Then my manager told me what it was, and I was like, “Oh, absolutely.” Not only am I a fan of Nick, but I’m a fan of basketball as well. In junior high, I thought I was going to be a basketball player before a piano player. Then in my first year of high school, I realized that that dream was not going to come up when I sat on the bench the whole fucking year. So I always say I slipped the bench over to the piano and that’s been my saving grace. But I also remember watching the Lakers in the ’80s with my dad, who’s a big fan. So I remember those Laker-Boston rivalries. It was just all that combined: Hell yeah, I’m down.

This series is set in the late ’70s and early ’80s, so when you’re composing, how much are you trying to channel the sound of those eras?
We’re trying to always stay true to the time period. We know what sounds were used in the ’70s and early ’80s, down to the way you tune the drums — because drums in the ’70s had a certain kind of tone. My guitarist might say, “Let me change the strings on this, because in this time period these were the strings that were used on these kinds of songs.” Those things help tell the story.

Is there some truth to that cliché about jazz and basketball, that you can put five people who’ve never played together before on the court, or in a studio, and they can do these incredible things together?
Absolutely. With jazz, everything’s in the moment. Certain things are rehearsed, like when you’re playing basketball. But when the defense comes, then those players will get interrupted. Same thing in music. You can rehearse all you want in your room by yourself. When you add other musicians, it’s going to change because now they’re saying something and you have to react to that in the same way and figure that out. A lot of times there is a point guard in music, a music director dictating the situation, but they still have to be in the moment. We can say, “Hey, guitar player, you play next”; “Drummer, you do this”; “We’re coming up to this bit.” But it’s still in the moment, so you have to be prepared for things to not go your way.

It sounds like there’s even a level of improvisation in the room when you’re creating these themes for Winning Time.
It’s all improv. Nick tried to bring charts the first time we recorded. It was adorable. I was like, “Aw, look at Nick, bringing in charts, being responsible, being ready, being prepared.” That’s not how I roll. I was like, “Hell no, don’t you dare write down ‘funk.’ You leave that folder over there.” And he laughed. I was like, “Just pull up the screen. We’ll look at it. We’re going to come up with the vibes on the spot. And trust me: You’re going to be satisfied.”

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Winning Time’s Musical Point Guard Sees Jazz in Basketball